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Community Caretaker Doctrine and Parked Cars

Today the Ninth Circuit held that it was unconstitutional for a police officer to seize a vehicle under the community caretaker doctrine.  Miranda v. City of Corneliu (here).  The panel's opinion was exactly right, though I would not be surprised if the Court summarily reversed.  When one looks at the facts of the case, and the rationale for the community caretaker doctrine, the correctness of the panel's opinion is inescapable.

A husband wanted to teach his wife how to drive.  Husband had a license, wife did not have a license.  Fifteen-year-old high school students obtain blue slips and regularly learn how to drive from a licensed driver, usually a parent.  But because the Mirandas did not speak English well, they did not know about such driver's ed. programs.

The wife drove through their neighborhood at about 10 m.p.h.  A police officer saw the car moving slowly and pulled them over just as they were pulling into their driveway.  Rather than giving the Mirandas a warning, the police officer ticketed both of them.  He also had their car impounded.

Having one's care impounded is a major hassle.  During my first year in law school I went to a meet a friend at the Los Angeles courthouse. Because the meter maid did not see my registration sticker that was visible in the back window of my car, he or she had my car impounded. 

The impound lot was in a very seedy place - not the type of place for smaller-sized people.  They told me it would cost $425 to recover my car.  My then-fiance and I - both of us students - did not have $425 laying around.  We had to borrow the money from a relative.  All said, it took us over 6 hours to recover a car that should never have been impounded. 

Why is the impound fee so expensive?  Simple: the city shares in the revenue.  Impound fees are basically another way for cities to tax people.  Thus, when the police officer had the Mirandas' car seized from their drive-way, he was putting them through great fiscal and emotional stress - all so the city could pick up a few extra bucks, and not so the public could be protected from a road hazard.

With the help of the Oregon Law Center, the Mirandas files a Section 1983 action against the city.  They city argued that because the officer seized the car subject to a traffic stop, the seizure was per se constitutional.  In other words, under the city's view, any time the police stop you, they can take away your car.  This rule would have been a radical departure from existing law.  Thankfully the Ninth Circuit rejected this invitation for judicial activism.

When it comes to traffic stops where there is no reason to believe guns, drugs, or other illegal things are hidden in the care, the police only have the power to seize a motorist's car under the "community caretaker" exception to the Fourth Amendment.  Under this exception, first articulated in Cady v. Dombroski, the police may seize a motorist's vehicle to protect the public. Having a car hanging out on the side of the road is dangerous.  Thus, by removing the car, the police are serving as "community caretakers." (That this exception is regularly abused, and often serves as a pretext to what would otherwise be unconstitutional searches is irrelevant here.)

However, how did the police act as a community caretaker here?  The car was parked in the Mirandas' driveway.  The car did not present a hazard to others.  Thus, the community caretaker-rationale imploded. 

Indeed, seizing someone's car when there is a licensed driver in the car has always seemed to me to fall outside the community caretaker exception.  Again, the community caretaker exception's rationale is that the police should not leave cars that will serve as road hazards.  If there is a licensed driver in the car, then the car will not remain unattended on the side of the road.  Here, it's more perverse: Not only was the car not going to be left by the side of the road, but the car was in a driveway.

The Ninth Circuit got this one right, and properly held that a car parked in a driveway that does not contain anything illegal in it cannot be seized under the community caretaker exception.