Community caretaking: not an open-ended license for impoundment

The police may not impound a car "simply as an excuse to look inside for evidence of a crime." But how do we know when an impoundment is pretextual? The Tenth Circuit offered a roadmap for this inquiry last month in United States v. Woodard, holding that a pretextual impoundment violated the Fourth Amendment.tow

As the Court explained in Woodard, if a car is parked on private property, impoundment will only pass Fourth Amendment muster if:

(1) the car is blocking traffic, 
(2) the car is posing an imminent threat to public safety, or 
(3) the impoundment is justified by a standardized policy and a reasonable, non-pretextual rationale of community caretaking.

Mr. Woodard's car was about to be stranded in a QuikTrip parking lot upon his arrest on an outstanding misdemeanor warrant. The police impounded the car absent any proper justification. The Tenth Circuit concluded that the impoundment both fell outside the local impoundment policy and was pretextual. On this latter point, the Court considered several factors, and found that every one pointed to pretext:

First, the car was on private property.

Second, the officers did not consult the property owner.

Third, Mr. Woodard asked if he could call someone to pick up the car, and the police refused.

Fourth, the car was not itself evidence of a crime.

Fifth, Mr. Woodard did not consent to impoundment.

Finally, the Court considered the acts and statements of the police that were captured on their body cameras. These included comments from one officer that he thought Mr. Woodard was "fighting a huge drug case" and from another officer that he was going to search the car and “friggin’ light [Mr. Woodard] up with whatever we can.”

Are you challenging an impoundment? Watch those body-cam videos and be sure to read Woodard.