NM: Vehicle impoundment does not entirely depend upon there being an arrest of the driver; community caretaking function can justify it

An impoundment does not entirely depend upon there being an arrest of the driver. Usually, it does, but it certainly can if impoundment is required under the community caretaking function for some other reason. Here, defendant was taken to the ER, and his vehicle would have been left on a convenience store parking lot. State v. Byrom, 2017 N.M. App. LEXIS 76 (Oct. 2, 2017):

P31 Defendant argues that the impoundment and inventory doctrine can only apply to situations where police first arrest the owner of the vehicle. We disagree with Defendant, and we conclude that Sergeant Foreman’s decision to impound and inventory Defendant’s vehicle was reasonable under the impoundment and inventory doctrine given the circumstances that confronted him. We acknowledge that if the defendant’s arrest is a necessary component of the rationale underpinning the impoundment and inventory doctrine, then the doctrine may not be applied to the facts of this case, absent novel reasons for the doctrine’s existence. We cannot conclude, however, that the doctrine only applies to searches following an arrest for two reasons.

P33 First, the impoundment and inventory doctrine is, as explained previously, one branch of the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment. The community caretaker exception, not just the impoundment and inventory doctrine, was born from the understanding that not all police-citizen encounters involve criminal investigation. Rather, police frequently interact with citizens innocuously, not seeking to implicate the citizen in a crime. The overarching concept substantiating the community caretaker exception is the non-criminal nature of the officer’s contact with the citizen. The exception itself presupposes the lack of criminal activity that would precede an arrest. It therefore makes little sense to conclude that one of the doctrines within the exception would require criminal activity as a precondition to its application.

P34 Second, we believe, and our case law supports the conclusion, that an arrest is not what makes an officer’s decision to impound a vehicle reasonable. Reasonableness is a function of an officer’s responsibility to safeguard the citizen’s property and a prudent officer’s need to insulate the police from liability should the citizen’s property be lost or stolen. Shaw, 1993-NMCA-016, ¶ 10. Any time a citizen is separated from his or her belongings, be it because an officer arrested that citizen or because the officer’s judgment led the officer to believe the citizen required medical attention at a facility some distance from the citizen’s vehicle where the officer responded to the citizen’s medical emergency, the citizen’s property is left exposed and unattended, and because the officer is involved in the separation of the citizen from the citizen’s belongings, the officer opens himself or herself up to potential liability for the loss or theft of those belongings. The reasons an officer’s decision to impound may be reasonable rest not on the existence of an arrest, but on the resulting circumstances after an arrest occurs—the separation of the citizen from the citizen’s property leaves the citizen’s property unattended and in a public place. A medical emergency may produce, exactly as it did in the present case, the same factual circumstances, i.e., the citizen no longer possesses or controls his own property because of the officer’s assistance. For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that Sergeant Foreman’s decision to impound and inventory Defendant’s vehicle was reasonable under the impoundment and inventory doctrine, despite not having arrested Defendant prior to deciding to impound Defendant’s vehicle. More specifically, it was not unreasonable for Sergeant Foreman to have decided to impound Defendant’s vehicle given that Defendant understood and responded positively to Sergeant Foreman’s offer to bring the tow paperwork to the hospital, and that Defendant’s rental car would have been left unattended for an unknown period of time in an area known for criminal activity while Defendant received medical treatment.

P35 Finally, we address Defendant’s two remaining arguments. Defendant argues that the State did not offer any evidence proving that there existed a threat of theft or vandalism to the vehicle were Sergeant Foreman to leave the vehicle parked in the parking lot. The only evidence the State presented came from Sergeant Foreman’s testimony at the suppression hearing, during which he stated that the location of the convenience store was “known for criminal activity.” Defendant cites to our decision in Apodaca v. New Mexico Taxation & Revenue Dep’t, for the proposition that the officer must express “specific, articulable safety concern” to justify the intrusion. 1994-NMCA-120, ¶ 5, 118 N.M. 624, 884 P.2d 515. In the present case, the district court concluded that the community caretaker exception requires “actual” evidence of unsafe conditions, and, “[t]here was no evidence it was a high value car or that it contained visible high value items which might make it a target for theft or vandalism.”

P36 We cannot rely on Apodaca for this proposition of law. There, an officer stopped the driver of a motorcycle weaving within one lane of traffic in a pendulum-type motion. Id. ¶ 2. The officer specifically admitted that he never suspected the driver was intoxicated or otherwise committing a traffic infraction. Id. ¶ 3. Rather, the officer initiated the stop out of concern for the driver’s welfare, perhaps an injury or illness. Id. Accordingly, the defendant argued that the stop was unconstitutional because the officer had no reasonable suspicion that the driver was engaged in criminal activity. Id. ¶ 4. We found the stop constitutional because “a police officer may stop a vehicle for a specific, articulable safety concern, even in the absence of reasonable suspicion that a violation of law has occurred or is occurring.” Id. ¶ 5. Our decision relied on State v. Reynolds, 1993-NMCA-162, 117 N.M. 23, 868 P.2d 668, rev’d on other grounds by 1995-NMSC-008, 119 N.M. 383, 890 P.2d 1315.

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