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People v. Brown

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

April 16, 2018

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner
v.
Carl A. Brown. Respondent

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 14CA959

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Carmen Moraleda, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Rachel K. Mercer, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado

          OPINION

          COATS, JUSTICE

         ¶1 The People petitioned for review of the court of appeals' judgment reversing Brown's drug-related conviction on the ground that his motion to suppress should have been granted. See People v. Brown, 2016 COA 150, ___ P.3d ___. The district court found that the contraband in question was discovered during an inventory search of the defendant's vehicle, the conduct of which was within the officers' discretion according to the policies and procedures of the Aurora Police Department, even though they had already decided to issue a summons rather than arrest the defendant for driving with a suspended license. By contrast, the court of appeals found that in the absence of an arrest, seizing the defendant's vehicle so as to provoke an inventory of its contents could not be justified as an exercise of the police caretaking function, and in the absence of any other recognized exception to the probable cause and warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment, violated its prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

         ¶2 Because the record fails to demonstrate that seizure of the defendant's vehicle was justified as an exercise of the police caretaking function or was otherwise reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, regardless of local ordinances or police policies and procedures broad enough to grant the officers discretion to impound the vehicle of a driver merely summoned rather than arrested for driving with a suspended license, the judgment of the court of appeals is affirmed.

         I.

         ¶3 Carl A. Brown was charged with and convicted of possession with intent to distribute a schedule II controlled substance, stemming from the discovery of crack cocaine during an inventory search of his vehicle. He was sentenced to ten years in the custody of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

         ¶4 Prior to trial, he moved to suppress the contraband on the ground that the impoundment and inventory search of his vehicle violated the dictates of the Fourth Amendment. Following a hearing of the motion, at which the factual allegations of the stop, search, and arrest were largely undisputed, the district court entered its findings of fact and conclusions of law. As pertinent to the issue before this court, the district court's findings and the uncontested testimony indicated the following.

         ¶5 Upon receiving an anonymous report of a suspicious person driving a gray BMW in the area, two Aurora police officers observed the defendant's gray BMW fail to stop at a stop sign, pulled him over, and discovered that he was driving on a suspended license. Although the officers decided to issue a summons and release him, pursuant to routine police procedure authorized by an Aurora ordinance, the officers nevertheless decided to impound his vehicle and, while waiting for the towing company, inventoried its contents, discovered a number of bags of crack cocaine, and thereafter arrested him. With regard to the search of the defendant's vehicle, the court concluded that under these circumstances, Aurora police policies and procedures granted the officers the discretion to conduct an inventory search, and for that reason, the search was not pretextual, even if the officers hoped to find evidence of a crime.

         ¶6 After rejecting the prosecution's assertion of waiver, the court of appeals found that whether the department's inventory procedure had been followed or not, the officers lacked justification for taking the vehicle into government custody in the first place. Reasoning that nothing in the record indicated the defendant could not lawfully provide for the vehicle himself, and thereby prevent it from becoming a public hazard or subjecting the police to liability for the loss of it or its contents, the intermediate appellate court concluded that the public function exception to the probable cause and warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment had not been met and that compliance with department policies alone did not constitute such an exception. In the absence of proof that the seizure of the vehicle fell within an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, the court found that the exclusionary rule required suppression of the discovered items.

         ¶7 The People petitioned for a writ of certiorari.

         II.

         ¶8 It is now well-settled that the seizure of vehicles by the police for caretaking purposes, as well as an inventory of the contents of vehicles lawfully in government custody, can amount to reasonable searches and seizures within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment without regard for either probable cause or a warrant. See Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 371 (1987); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 373-74 (1976); People v. Vaughn, 2014 CO 71, ¶ 14, 334 P.3d 226, 230. As the Supreme Court has observed, the "probable-cause approach is unhelpful when analysis centers upon the reasonableness of routine administrative caretaking functions, " as distinguished from criminal investigations. Bertine, 479 U.S. at 371 (quoting Opperman, 428 U.S. at 370 n.5). Rather, it is the purpose of protecting against danger or loss, or even false claims of loss, and the routine or standardized nature ...


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