police motor vehicle search

Vehicle Inventory and Community Caretaker

In United States v. Davis1 the court looked at two primary issues. First, the court looked at the question of whether the officers conducted a proper motor vehicle inventory and, secondly, were there sufficient facts to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Davis was in “possession” of the firearm.

Facts

In the early morning hours of July 2, 2016, officers of the Hampton, New Hampshire Police Department observed a vehicle leave a local bar parking lot and proceed along the road to a nearby parking lot. The vehicle traveled along the public road without its headlights illuminated and pulled into the second parking lot perpendicularly across a handicapped parking space.

The officers approached the vehicle and spoke with Joseph Davis who exhibited several signs of intoxication. Davis claimed his erratic driving was due to his need to use the restroom. Once officers determined that Davis was not the owner of the vehicle they asked him to step out. Davis had trouble standing upright and admitted to having several drinks while he performed with his band at the restaurant. Davis failed several field sobriety tests and officers could see an open liquor bottle in the driver’s door compartment. Based on these observations, the officers arrested Davis, handcuffed him and placed him in the cruiser.

Pursuant to HPD directives, the officers called for a tow truck to tow Davis’ vehicle to a secure lot and conducted an inventory search of the vehicle. During the inventory search, the officers secured two cups and a liquor bottle. While placing the keys back in the vehicle one of the officers observed a handgun between the driver’s seat and the center console. The gun was partially covered by a silk scarf that Davis had thrown down when the officers asked him to get out of the car. The officers secured the weapon “out of concern for both public safety and out of reluctance to leave an item of value in the vehicle”.

Davis was subsequently charged for federal gun possession crimes and was convicted and sentenced to 4.5 years in federal prison. Davis’ motion to suppress the firearm was denied by the trial court and this appeal followed.

1st Circuit Findings

On appeal, Davis claimed that the officer’s inventory search was impermissible under the 4th Amendment and he also claimed that the state failed to prove that Davis “possessed” the weapon – an element that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to support a guilty verdict.

With respect to the first claim, the court noted that impounding a vehicle is proper under the officer’s community caretaking responsibilities when the vehicle must be secured pursuant to the operator’s custodial arrest or the vehicle is “impeding traffic or threatens public safety and convenience”. Under the circumstances in this case the court found that towing the vehicle was “one of several reasonable options” available to the police.

Once the officers opted to have the vehicle towed, the “community caretaking” function allows an inventory search of the vehicle when the officers are acting pursuant to agency directives that outline procedures for the inventory search. Moreover, inventory searches are carried out, not for an investigatory purpose, but rather to protect the officers and the department from claims of theft or damage.

The appellate court also rebuffed Davis’ claim that there was not sufficient evidence to prove he had “knowledge of and intent to control the weapon” as required under the statute. The court listed several factors that supported the prosecutions claim that Davis had “constructive possession” of the firearm:

  • The gun was located between the seat and console within inches of his right hand;
  • Before denying he knew of the gun’s existence, Davis told the officers that he was “only driving with it” and his “fiancé had a permit for it”.
  • The officers testified that Davis had thrown his scarf over the gun in an attempt to conceal it and one officer testified that Davis “seemed to be indexing with his right hand” as if he was trying to conceal something.

The appellate court affirmed the conviction.

Wrap Up

There are two distinct issues to focus on here – the use of the motor vehicle inventory process as a tool in your tool box and the importance of documenting your facts to prove “constructive possession”.

With respect to the inventory search – there are two important elements to keep in mind in order to meet 4th Amendment requirements. First, your agency must have a directive that outlines policy and procedure for conducting an inventory search of impounded vehicles. If you are not using the DLG policy be sure to check your policy to make sure you are on solid ground. More importantly, inventory searches are conducted under your “community caretaker” responsibilities. That is to say, the purpose of your search is to document the vehicle’s inventory to protect you and the agency from later claims of theft or damage. The purpose of the search IS NOT to uncover contraband or evidence. Simply put, the function of the search is to limit liability, not investigative.

The second issue may seem like a no brainer – proving possession – but it’s not always as clear cut as it seems. It is important that you take the time to document your observations and statements made by the accused to assure the prosecutor has enough direct and circumstantial evidence to prove this important element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. As the 1st Circuit pointed out in this case – “mere presence or proximity to weapons is insufficient to circumstantially establish constructive possession and must be connected with some action, word or conduct that links the individual to the contraband and indicates he had some stake in it”.

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1 https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca1/17-1692/17-1692-2018-11-20.html


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