Flashing lights on top of police patrol car

The roof of a police patrol car at night, with the blue and red lights flashing.

Because Lakewood police unconstitutionally impounded a man’s vehicle, a lower court should have suppressed the drug evidence found inside the car, the federal appeals court based in Denver decided on Monday in overturning the conviction.

By 2-1, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed with Hunter Trey Venezia that officers who took him into custody at a Lakewood motel following a traffic violation had insufficient grounds to impound his car and perform a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

“There was simply nothing unusual, let alone harmful to public safety or convenience, in leaving Venezia’s vehicle overnight in the motel parking lot. Ostensibly, doing so would have been no different than what the motel’s guests do on a regular basis,” wrote Senior Judge Mary Beck Briscoe for the panel’s majority.

Venezia’s case involved the concept of the “community-caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment. Police officers are not required to obtain a warrant if their search or seizure pertains to community-caretaking functions, such as removing a car that is disabled in an accident and presents a hazard to the public. While the exception applies explicitly to vehicles, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing whether it also covers police entry and seizure of firearms in a residence.

In the past, the 10th Circuit has given police the discretion to impound vehicles as long as they are acting in good faith and not doing it as a pretext to investigate a crime.  

"There is a core set of community caretaking activities that have a longstanding tradition and that have achieved relatively unquestioned acceptance in local communities," wrote Debra A. Livingston, now a federal circuit judge in New York, in a 1998 law journal article. "There is substantial consensus that these duties are part of the police role. And performing these duties obviously serves important ends distinct from any interest in law enforcement."

On Jan. 2, 2019, two Lakewood police officers approached Venezia in a motel parking lot in a designated “high-crime area” after witnessing him fail to signal his turn. They had noticed his sedan’s front and rear license plates were not affixed to the bumpers. The officers determined Venezia did not have a driver license, vehicle registration, car insurance or title to the vehicle. He did, however, have an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court for a traffic offense.

Officers looked up the registered owner of the vehicle, who was not Venezia. They tried but failed to contact the listed owner. Venezia told the officers he recently bought the car, but gave them a name that was not the registered owner’s. Only much later did it become clear the listed owner had in fact sold the sedan to the man Venezia mentioned, who in turn had sold it to Venezia.

The officers arrested Venezia and impounded the vehicle without inquiring whether the friend whom Venezia was visiting at the motel could take possession of it. As part of their impoundment inventory, the police found a variety of controlled substances and paraphernalia. According to the criminal complaint, Venezia then admitted to dealing drugs. Venezia was later charged with three counts of possession with intent to distribute.

Venezia requested the federal trial court suppress the drug evidence pursuant to the Fourth Amendment. The court denied the motion and Venezia subsequently pleaded guilty to a methamphetamine offense. The defense then appealed the court’s decision to the 10th Circuit.

“Mr. Venezia had been arrested on a traffic violation. He was gonna get out very quickly and presumably be in a position to clarify his ownership,” Assistant Federal Public Defender Dean Sanderford told the appellate panel during oral arguments. “If you allow impoundments liberally from ‘high-crime areas,’ basically you’re just punishing people who live there.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Ford Milani countered that the primary issue was the police’s inability to establish who rightfully owned the car at the time.

“Even if the defendant came back quickly, that could create even more problems from a law enforcement perspective,” she said.

According to Lakewood Police Department policy, officers are “encouraged” to impound vehicles when the driver does not have a license, the car is registered to another person and officers cannot verify whether the driver has permission to operate the car. The 10th Circuit panel agreed the police’s actions in Venezia’s case adhered to the protocol.

However, the panel’s majority did not believe the officers’ decision to impound the sedan fell within a list of established parameters for the police’s community-caretaking function. First, Venezia’s vehicle was on private property, meaning there was less of a risk to public safety. Second, the police did not consult with the motel owner or operator about whether it could remain parked there.

Third, even though the motel was in a “high-crime area,” the alternative to removal was to leave Venezia’s vehicle in the parking lot — along with all of the other vehicles of customers.

“The district court found that the vehicle was legally parked, was not impeding traffic, and did not pose a safety hazard,” wrote Briscoe. “Accordingly, there is no reasonable explanation for why the vehicle could not remain in the motel parking lot until [the registered owner] was reached, or why the vehicle needed to be impounded immediately following Venezia’s arrest.”

Fourth, the vehicle was not implicated in a crime beyond the traffic violation, and finally, the officers could not establish the lawful owner. Of the five elements, only the final one weighed in favor of impounding the vehicle.

Given the circumstances, Briscoe concluded for the majority, the Lakewood police policy “simply did not grant the officers authority to do what the Fourth Amendment forbids — to impound a vehicle absent a reasonable community-caretaking rationale.”

Senior Judge Bobby R. Baldock disagreed with the majority's conclusion, and blasted his colleagues Briscoe and Judge Carolyn B. McHugh for ignoring the evidence, substituting their hindsight for the judgment of the officers and flouting common sense.

"Until today, the Fourth Amendment permitted police officers to act as community caretakers and impound an arrestee’s vehicle for safekeeping when no one is available to take custody of it and the circumstances present the potential for theft or vandalism," Baldock wrote. Securing Venezia's sedan in an impound lot, to him, was a reasonable decision, especially given the unresolved question of the car's ownership.

"At bottom, the officers’ decision to act as community caretakers and impound the to-be-determined owner’s vehicle for safekeeping rather than leave it unattended in an area where vehicle trespasses and thefts often occurred was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment," Baldock added. "The Court’s contrary conclusion is simply wrong."

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment, and Venezia's public defender cited an office policy preventing attorneys from speaking publicly about cases.

The case is United States v. Venezia.

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