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Name: People v. Cervantes
Case #: 09-50521
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 05/16/2012
Summary

In a Fourth Amendment analysis, mere conclusions of the police officer do not establish probable cause justifying an exception to the Fourth Amendment and an officer’s investigatory motive for vehicle impoundment is relevant to the validity of the community caretaking exception. While conducting surveillance on a suspected stash house, officer Henkel observed appellant enter and then leave, holding a large white box. He placed the box in his truck and drove away. Henkel monitored him over the next few hours and eventually asked a police unit to develop a lawful reason to conduct a traffic stop. The police officers stopped appellant for failing to come to a complete stop. The officers impounded the vehicle, searched it and found the white box which contained two kilograms of cocaine. Appellant was arrested and taken into custody only after the vehicle was impounded and the inventory search had resulted in the discovery of cocaine. At a subsequent suppression hearing, Henkel made a conclusory statement that the white box came from a “suspected narcotics stash house.” He also testified that appellant’s driving was “counter-surveillance,” indicating drug trafficking. The appellate court found that Henkel’s conclusory statements were akin to an anonymous tip and entitled to little (if any) weight in determining whether there was reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle. As to Henkel’s belief regarding appellant’s driving, the described driving was consistent with innocent behavior and insufficient to establish probable cause. Finally, the court noted that the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment did not justify the search. Under the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment, police can impound vehicles that jeopardize public safety and search them per department policy. But an inventory search cannot be a ruse for a general rummaging to discover incriminating evidence and the officers’ motive in conducting the impound are relevant. Because the evidence here reflected that the impoundment was a pretext to search for narcotics, the community caretaking exception did not apply. The denial of appellant’s motion to suppress was reversed.