Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal holds California’s 30-day Vehicle Impound Law Violates 4th Amendment

Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq. of Jones & Mayer

On June 21, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Brewster v. Beck holding that the 30-day impound of a vehicle seized pursuant to Vehicle Code section 14602.6(a)(1) violated the Fourth Amendment. The panel reversed the District Court’s dismissal of a class action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Los Angeles police officers violated plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights when they impounded her vehicle for 30 days pursuant to California Vehicle Code section 14602.6(a)(1).

Facts and Background

Lamya Brewster loaned her vehicle to Yonnie Percy, her brother-in-law. Percy was stopped by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, who learned that Percy’s driver’s license was suspended.  The officers then seized the vehicle pursuant to California Vehicle Code section 14602.6(a)(1), which authorizes impounding a vehicle when the driver has a suspended license.  Vehicles seized under this section must generally be held in impound for 30 days. Veh. Code. § 14602.6(a)(1).

Three days later, Brewster appeared at a hearing before the LAPD with proof that she was the registered owner of the vehicle and her valid California driver’s license. Brewster offered to pay all towing and storage fees that had accrued, but the LAPD refused to release the vehicle before the 30-day holding period had lapsed.

Ten days after the impound, the LAPD released the vehicle to Superior Auto, the lien holder and legal owner of the vehicle. Pursuant to LAPD policy, Superior Auto had to “ensure that no one, including the registered owner . . . will have access to the . . . vehicle during the remainder of the 30-day impoundment period.” Accordingly, Brewster ultimately was deprived of her vehicle for the full 30 days.

Brewster subsequently filed a class action lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on behalf of all vehicle owners whose vehicles were subjected to the 30-day impound. The complaint alleged that the 30-day impound constituted a warrantless seizure that violated the Fourth Amendment. The District Court concluded that the 30-day impound was a valid administrative penalty and granted LAPD’s motion to dismiss the case.  Brewster appealed.

Ninth Circuit’s Discussion

The Court initially observed that Section 14602.6(a)(1) of the California Vehicle Code authorized police to seize a vehicle when the driver’s license has been suspended.  “A vehicle so impounded shall be impounded for 30 days.” Within two business days of impoundment, the agency that seizes the vehicle must notify the vehicle’s owner and provide an “opportunity for a storage hearing to determine the validity of, or consider any mitigating circumstances attendant to, the storage.” Section 14602.6(a)(2), (b). The Court noted that the LAPD’s “Impound Policy” mirrored Section 14602.6.

The Court then turned its attention to its analysis of Brewster’s constitutional claim, namely that the 30-day impound of her vehicle constituted a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court stated that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV. A seizure is a “meaningful interference with an individual’s possessory interests in [his] property.” Soldal v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56, 61 (1992) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The Court commented that, “[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.” United States v. Hawkins, 249 F.3d 867, 872 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The Court observed that parties agreed that the LAPD could impound—and, therefore, seize—Brewster’s vehicle pursuant to Section 14602.6(a)(1) under the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. Cervantes, 703 F.3d 1135, 1141 (9th Cir. 2012) (discussing the community caretaking exception).  But this exception is available only to “impound vehicles that jeopardize public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic.”  Id.  The Court stated that the exigency that justified the initial seizure of Brewster’s vanished once her vehicle arrived in impound and Brewster showed up with proof of ownership and a valid driver’s license.  The Court stated that the question it must consider was whether the Fourth Amendment required further authorization for the LAPD to hold the vehicle for 30 days.

In answering this question, the Court initially noted that, “[a] seizure is justified under the Fourth Amendment only to the extent that the government’s justification holds force. Thereafter, the government must cease the seizure or secure a new justification.”

The Court stated that there were no cases on point in the Ninth Circuit, but noted that Judge Henderson of the Northern District of California had addressed the matter “in a thorough and well-reasoned opinion,” which the Court found persuasive.  See Sandoval v. County of Sonoma, 72 F. Supp. 3d 997 (N.D. Cal. 2014).

The Court stated that, “[b]ecause a 30-day impound is a ‘meaningful interference with an individual’s possessory interests in [his] property,’ Soldal, 506 U.S. at 61 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), the Fourth Amendment is implicated when a vehicle is impounded under Section 14602.6(a).” The Court remarked that the District Court found that such a seizure did not present a Fourth Amendment problem because “the state has an important interest in . . . keeping unlicensed drivers from driving illegally.” In dismissing this conclusion by the District Court, the Court observed that Fourth Amendment was implicated by a delay in returning the property, whether the property was seized for a criminal investigation, to protect the public, or to punish the individual. Sandoval, 72 F. Supp. 3d at 1004.

The Court stated that the Fourth Amendment did not become irrelevant once an initial seizure had run its course. The Court noted that, “[a] seizure is justified under the Fourth Amendment only to the extent that the government’s justification holds force. Thereafter, the government must cease the seizure or secure a new justification. Appellees [the LAPD] have provided no justification here.”

The Court disagreed with a Seventh Circuit decision holding the contrary.  See Lee v. City of Chicago, 330 F.3d 456 (7th Cir. 2003).  In Lee, the City of Chicago seized Lee’s vehicle for evidentiary purposes but failed to return it after it was no longer needed.  As in this case, the parties agreed that the initial seizure of the vehicle was reasonable.  However, Lee argued that “the continued possession of the property by the government became a meaningful interference with his possessory interest and, thus, must be interpreted as a Fourth Amendment seizure.” Id. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, holding that “[o]nce an individual has been meaningfully dispossessed, the seizure of the property is complete, and once justified by probable cause, that seizure is reasonable.”  Id. at 466. Reasoning that “Lee’s car was seized when it was impounded,” the Seventh Circuit concluded that the City’s continued possession of the vehicle “neither continued the initial seizure nor began another.” Id.

The Ninth Circuit expressly rejected this reasoning, holding that, “The 30-day impound of Brewster’s vehicle constituted a seizure that required compliance with the Fourth Amendment.”  The Court summarily dismissed the argument that its decision “frustrate[d] the state legislature’s intent to impose a penalty on unlicensed drivers.” In doing so, the Court stated that, “We have no occasion to decide whether this objective is lawful.”  Finally, the Court observed that, “The police could impound a vehicle under section 22651(p), which authorizes impoundment when the driver doesn’t have a valid license. See Cal. Veh. Code § 22651(p). Section 22651(p) doesn’t have a mandatory 30-day hold period, thus avoiding the Fourth Amendment problem presented by section 14602.6(a).”

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

Pursuant to this decision, it would constitute a Fourth Amendment violation to continue the impoundment of a vehicle seized pursuant to Section 14602.6(a)(1) after the time that a party who could lawfully possess the seized vehicle arrived to take custody of the vehicle, unless a warrant were obtained to continue the possession of the vehicle or an agency is able to articulate facts that support another exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.  As noted by the Court, the community caretaking exception “that justified the seizure vanished once the vehicle arrived in impound and Brewster showed up with proof of ownership and a valid driver’s license.”  According to this analysis, a vehicle would have to be released to a person who provided proof of legal ownership or possession, a valid driver’s license, and upon payment of any accrued fees.  Accordingly, agencies may wish to review their vehicle impound and release policies with their legal counsel to determine if they comply with the Brewster decision.  Those policies, like the Los Angeles Police Department policy, which “mirror” Vehicle Code section 14602.6 may be at risk in light of this decision.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Brewster is in direct conflict with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in the Lee case.  A direct circuit conflict on a point of law is an important factor in the United States Supreme Court’s determination as to whether or not it will accept a case for review.  Only time will tell if the Supreme Court will have the occasion to consider the Brewster case. . .

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship.





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