Case Law About Impounding a Vehicle Without a Warrant
In Miranda v. City of Cornelius, 429 F.3d 858 (Miranda), the court stated, "The impoundment of an automobile is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. A seizure results if 'there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property.' Soldal v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56, 61, 113 S.Ct. 538, 121 L.Ed.2d 450 (1992). . . .
"'A seizure conducted without a warrant is per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment -- subject only to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions. The burden is on the Government to persuade the . . . court that a seizure comes under one of a few specifically established exceptions to the warrant requirement.' ." (Miranda, supra, 429 F.3d at p. 862.) One such exception is the community caretaking doctrine. (Id. at p. 862.)
"In their 'community caretaking' function, police officers may impound vehicles that 'jeopardize public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic.' (South Dakota v. Opperman (1976) 428 U.S. 364, 368-369 (Opperman).)
Whether an impoundment is warranted under this community caretaking doctrine depends on the location of the vehicle and the police officers' duty to prevent it from creating a hazard to other drivers or being a target for vandalism or theft. See United States v. Jensen, 425 F.3d 698, 706 (9th Cir. 2005) ('Once the arrest was made, the doctrine allowed law enforcement officers to seize and remove any vehicle which may impede traffic, threaten public safety, or be subject to vandalism.'); Hallstrom v. City of Garden City, 991 F.2d 1473, 1477, n.4 (9th Cir. 1993) (impoundment of arrestee's car from private parking lot 'to protect the car from vandalism or theft' was reasonable under the community caretaking function). A driver's arrest, or citation for a non-criminal traffic violation as in this case, is not relevant except insofar as it affects the driver's ability to remove the vehicle from a location at which it jeopardizes the public safety or is at risk of loss. . . .
"The reasonableness of an impoundment under the community caretaking function does not depend on whether the officer had probable cause to believe that there was a traffic violation, but on whether the impoundment fits within the 'authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience . . . .' Opperman, 428 U.S. at 369." (Miranda, supra, 429 F.3d at p. 864.)
"If officers are warranted in impounding a vehicle, a warrantless inventory search of the vehicle pursuant to a standardized procedure is constitutionally reasonable. (Opperman, supra, 428 U.S. at p. 372.) . . . Although a police officer is not required to adopt the least intrusive course of action in deciding whether to impound and search a car (Colorado v. Bertine (1987) 479 U.S. 367, 374 . . . (Bertine)), the action taken must nonetheless be reasonable in light of the justification for the impound and inventory exception to the search warrant requirement. Reasonableness is 'the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment.' " (People v. Williams (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 756, 761-762 (Williams).)
Opperman involved an inventory search of a vehicle conducted after it had been towed from the scene. (Opperman, supra, 428 U.S. at pp. 365-366, 375-376 96 S.Ct. at pp. 3095, 3100.) However, an otherwise valid inventory search is not rendered invalid merely because the search preceded the towing of the vehicle. (Cf. People v. Benites (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 309, 314, 321; People v. Burch (1986) 188 Cal.App.3d 172, 175-176, 180; Colorado v. Bertine, supra, 479 U.S. 367, 368-369.)
"It is well settled that inventories of impounded vehicles are reasonable where the process is aimed at securing or protecting the car and its contents.Such searches are unreasonable and therefore violative of the Fourth Amendment when used as a ruse to conduct an investigatory search. " (People v. Steeley (1989) 210 Cal.App.3d 887, 891-892.)
Former Vehicle Code section 22651, states, in relevant part: "Any peace officer, . . . may remove a vehicle located within the territorial limits in which the officer . . . may act, under any of the following circumstances: . . . (g) When the person or persons in charge of a vehicle upon a highway or any public lands are, by reason of physical injuries or illness, incapacitated to an extent so as to be unable to provide for its custody or removal. (h) (1) When an officer arrests any person driving . . . a vehicle for an alleged offense and the officer is, by this code or other law, required or permitted to take, and does take, the person into custody. . . . (p) When the peace officer issues the driver of a vehicle a notice to appear for a violation of Section 12500, . . ."