By on August 3, 2010

Unlike a Texas appellate court, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled last Wednesday that reaching one’s own driveway during a traffic stop can avoid more serious consequences. In November 2007, Officer Blood of the Cornelius Police Department attempted to stop Richard Chaves Gonzales for a traffic violation. Gonzales was just two or three blocks from home, so he did not stop until he reached his own driveway. Blood wrote Gonzales a ticket for driving on a suspended license and began searching the car without a warrant after declaring that he was going to impound the vehicle. Blood insisted that the search was valid.

“I get a slow response from people who may be suspended or not have insurance, because they want to get to what I call home base,” Blood explained at trial. “They think their car won’t get impounded if they get caught.”

State prosecutors argued that the community caretaking doctrine required that police grab the car from the driveway because the vehicle would otherwise have been “at the disposal” of people who had no license, even though the mother-in-law of Gonzales, the car’s owner, had a license. The public defender argued on behalf of Gonzales that the state had no business towing a car that was not blocking traffic and would not be considered abandoned if left alone. A trial judge decided that he was not going to allow Gonzales to benefit from not pulling over immediately.

The state court of appeals examined this decision in light of a decision from the federal appeals court that has jurisdiction over Oregon. The Ninth Circuit ruled in 2005 that police could not tow a Ford Aerostar minivan out of the owner’s driveway by asserting the community caretaking function (view Miranda v. City of Cornelius decision).

“Defendant in this case relies heavily on Miranda, essentially urging us to adopt the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning,” Judge Ellen F. Rosenblum wrote for the three-judge panel. “We agree with the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning in Miranda and need not restate it at length here. The community caretaking doctrine does not encompass all police activity that furthers the interests of public safety, as the state appears to assert… To the extent that deterring unlicensed drivers from using the roads can be viewed as a public safety matter independent of law enforcement, we reject the state’s suggestion that leaving the car accessible to defendant would have created a threat to public safety. That contention amounts to little more than speculation that defendant would have driven the car again and would not have been deterred by the citation for driving while suspended, which carried a fine of up to $720.”

Because the court ruled the seizure was illegal, the evidence of cocaine possession obtained after conducting a search of the car was thrown out.

A copy of the decision is available at the source link below.

Source: Oregon v. Gonzales (Court of Appeals, State of Oregon, 8/3/2010)


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11 Comments on “Oregon Appeals Court Overturns Car Impound On Driver Property...”

  • avatar

    I’m kind of surprised that they didn’t cite Arizona v. Gant as well, which would seem on point.

    • 0 avatar

      The US SC case Arizona v. Grant is not on point. Grant is a Search-Incident-to-Arrest (SIA, or SILA [Lawful]) case, whereas Oregon v. Gonzales and Miranda v. City of Cornelius are community caretaker seizure cases.

      In Grant, Tweedledum pulled into his own driveway while the cops were at his house to arrest him on an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. Grant got out of his car and closed the door, walked towards the cops, and was then placed under arrest. The cops then conducted a SILA of his car, finding a gun and drug paraphernalia. Since there was no safety concern (he was handcuffed in a cruiser) nor any evidence to be found (read could not possibly exist) relating to the charge that he was arrested for (driving with a suspended license), the SILA was ruled invalid and the poisoned evidence tossed. The cops had no valid reason to search or seize the car without a warrant.

      In Gonzales and Miranda, the cars were both seized under the guise of statutory community caretaker laws. The drivers in these cases were only cited for traffic violations, not arrested. Hence, no SILA and Grant does not apply.

      An interesting question is why the state in Gonzales makes the mistake of arguing that deterrence justifies community caretaking seizures, again. Why not just go for a Bennis v. Michigan civil forfeiture/criminal deterrence exception specifically mentioned in Miranda? The state would have to sue Gonzales’ mother-in-law to satisfy due process, but they could seize the vehicle permanently. The report implies that Gonzales’ license has been suspended since 1999 and he has 2 convictions for driving with a suspended license, making him a perfect candidate for civil forfeiture. Oregon surely has a civil forfeiture law.

  • avatar

    “evidence of cocaine possession” Just a hunch, but it might be that the traffic-violation pullover was just a pretext to seize the vehicle and search for something more incriminating.

    Oh, the traffic offense? Teaching his wife how to drive. From the opinion: “In April 2003, Jorge Miranda accompanied Irene Miranda as she drove his Ford Aerostar minivan at 10 MPH in a Cornelius, Oregon neighborhood to and instructed her how to drive. A police officer witnessed her poor driving and issued tickets to both Mirandas after they had pulled into their personal driveway. Thirty minutes later, the officer had a tow truck remove the minivan right out of their driveway. Miranda had to pay the city administrative and towing fees in addition to losing a day’s pay to come pick it up the next day.

    A federal district court in Oregon upheld the vehicle seizure on the grounds that there is no privacy in a private person’s driveway. The Ninth Circuit, however, viewed the situation differently and took the City of Cornelius to task for assuming that merely passing a law gives them a right to seize personal property without a warrant.

    “We begin with the premise, apparently not recognized by the Defendants, that the decision to impound pursuant to the authority of a city ordinance and state statute does not, in and of itself, determine the reasonableness of the seizure under the Fourth Amendment,” the court wrote.”

    Contrary to popular opinion, the 4th amendment does not ban all searches and seizures without a warrant, just unreasonable ones. Grabbing the Miranda’s minivan looks pretty unreasonable to me.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the clarification Merc. The original story did not show the level that the police went to when impounding this vehicle. With the added information provided by you, I actually find myself agreeing with a decision by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals and therefore the Oregon Appeals Court decision.

  • avatar

    I moved from the Cornelius area (luckily not in the town itself) a few months ago… both their cops and the people who live there is complete crazies. There are a few decent people on the outside of city limits, but it’s a town filled with heavy drug users, drug dealers, and people who should be on medication.

    I was quite thankful every time I made it safely through it.

    • 0 avatar

      I drove through Cornelius on Saturday, didn’t even realize it. It’s only 1.9 square miles, pretty much subsumed by Forest Grove. Hard to believe it has its own police department. I’ll bet if Gonzales had driven a couple more blocks he’d have been outside their jurisdiction.

  • avatar

    An interesting dilemma for police. While a “search” these are more commonly referred to as an inventory. Technically, they are allowed so as to protect the property owner’s rights as well as the municipality. I agree with most that parking on your own property without other probable cause would not necessitate a seizure and subsequent inventory search. However, what happens when the vehicle is otherwise legally parked? While the Court only ever addresses the singular issue(s) before them, what happens when a defendant parks curbside or in a parking lot? These would seem to rise to the same level. Yet, can the municipality be assured that the vehicle will not be vandalized or stolen while the owner is in jail? More eventual questions for the Court I am sure.

  • avatar

    The impound was a bit much. Looks like a revenue grab.

    That said, I’d like to know why Gonzalez’s license was suspended. If it was for something serious (like DUI or Hit And Run), he should have been locked up.

    Of course, locking people up is a revenue loser. Which is why driving without a valid license equals a parking ticket in many area. And why there’s political pressure to raise revenue via impounds and seizures.

  • avatar

    I’m glad justice was done. The powers given to the police really need to be curbed, ir at least enforced. Too often the cops think they are above the law (which they effectively are) and do whatever the hell they please. I’m ok with the occasional criminal getting away rather than have the police make a travesty of the law.

  • avatar

    Who wrote this article? The Texas case mentioned in the first line, Banda v. Texas, never had a traffic stop. Meaning the first statement out of the gate is patently false. In Banda, Dude drove someone off the road and was tossing beer cans out his car on his way home. Only once he was already home did the cops show up and arrested him for DUI. No flashy lights, no woo-woo, no pull over. So when you nearly kill someone with your car, no, you don’t get to “avoid more serious consequences” by driving home. In Texas or any other state.

    If you are going to write (I know TTAC didn’t write this article) about the law and legal cases, read the damn things. This is just sloppy.

    However, I have to say I’m really glad the courts are closing the backdoor on 4th Amendment jurisprudence and vehicles. For too long the courts have allowed the police claim safety concerns and the lack of a reasonable expectation of privacy in traffic stops to utterly neuter the 4th Amendment. Before it was like trying to use a colander to hold water, but now it looks like the free pass to vehicles is over. Hopefully this will curb somewhat the rampant abuse of traffic laws to go on fishing expeditions in people’s cars. Or generate revenue for the city.

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