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SCOW will decide if cops can tow, search a legally parked car after giving ticket

State v. Alfonso Lorenzo Brooks, 2018AP1774, review of a per curiam decision granted 12/10/2019; reversed 6/25/20; case activity (including briefs)

Issue presented:

Whether the community caretaker exception permits law enforcement to inventory and tow a vehicle after discovering that the driver does  not have a valid license, when the vehicle is lawfully parked and not obstructing traffic?

This case has some great facts for a challenge to a police impoundment of a vehicle–though the court of appeals didn’t think so. Brooks got stopped for speeding, and when he pulled over, he parked his car in a legal spot on the street. The police wrote him some tickets but didn’t arrest him. However, he had a suspended license so they wouldn’t let him drive the car away. The registered owner did have a license, though, and she was just a few minutes away; she arrived on-scene shortly.

Naturally, the police decided to tow the legally-parked, soon-to-be-picked up car. And, before they did, they conducted an “inventory” search, which turned up a gun in the trunk. Brooks had a felony conviction, so they arrested him for possessing a firearm.

Brooks moved to suppress on the ground that the seizure of his car was not a bona fide community caretaker action. That was denied and he pleaded guilty. He then filed a postconviction motion reasserting the Fourth Amendment claim and a related IAC issue–he alleged his trial lawyer didn’t produce certain evidence about the seizure that would have made a difference. That motion was denied without a hearing, and the Court of appeals affirmed.

We’ll see what SCOW does. Its most recent pronouncement on vehicle impoundments was in State v. Asboth, where it held (contrary to the majority of jurisdictions to consider the question) that such seizures need not be carried out in accord with “standard criteria.” This case also raises, among other things, a question of whether the deputies followed their internal policies on seizing vehicles. If, as the court of appeals held, the seizure here was legal, it’s hard to see how we’re not in the world forecast by the Asboth dissent: that because “today’s close call is tomorrow’s norm” “the community caretaker exception may [have] become bottomless.”

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