June 30, 2020 – A unanimous Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that Milwaukee sheriff’s deputies violated a driver’s Fourth Amendment rights when they seized his vehicle and conducted an inventory search before transferring it to an impound lot.
In State v. Brooks, 2020 WI 60 (June 25, 2020), the unanimous court reversed an appeals court decision, concluding a warrant was required and no exception applied.
“We consider in this case whether the deputies were performing a bona fide community caretaker function when they seized Mr. Brooks’ vehicle without a warrant,” wrote Justice Daniel Kelly. “We conclude they were not.”
Stop, Search, Impound
In 2014, deputies stopped Alfonso Brooks for speeding. During the stop, police learned that Brooks was driving with a suspended license, and he was a convicted felon.
The deputies issued traffic citations and said department policy required them to tow his vehicle to an impound lot since he could not legally drive. Brooks said his girlfriend, who was following him, could drive the car for him, but police declined, again citing policy.
Before towing the vehicle, deputies conducted a warrantless inventory search of the vehicle and arrested Brooks after finding a firearm in the trunk area.
As a felon, Brooks was prohibited from possessing firearms. He moved to suppress the firearm, arguing police violated his constitutional rights by searching his vehicle without a warrant. The state argued that deputies were justified in searching and seizing the vehicle based on a “community caretaker” exception to the warrant requirement.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
The “community caretaker” exception may apply when police discover evidence while performing a “bona fide community caretaker” function that is “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence” relating to a suspected crime.
The state argued deputies conducted the inventory search as a matter of established procedure before impounding a vehicle, and “reasonable police regulations relating to inventory procedures administered in good faith satisfy the Fourth Amendment.”
Brooks pled guilty after his suppression motion was denied. In a postconviction motion and on appeal, he argued the community caretaker exception did not apply.
Supreme Court Unanimous
The court of appeals affirmed the circuit court’s decision to deny Brooks’ motion to suppress and upheld the conviction. But the supreme court unanimously reversed.
Two seizures applied, the court noted in the opinion by Justice Kelly. The first occurred when deputies stopped Brooks for speeding. That seizure, Justice Kelly explained, “could last no longer than required to complete the purpose of the traffic stop.”
The second seizure occurred when the deputies decided to impound Brooks’ vehicle because he lacked a valid driver’s license. That decision led to the inventory search, which one deputy conducted while the other deputy was issuing the traffic tickets.
The state claimed the community caretaker exception kicked in once police decided Brooks couldn’t drive and impounding the car was necessary to remove it from the road.
The state heavily relied on another vehicle impoundment case, State v. Asboth, 2017 WI 76, 376 Wis. 2d 644, 898 N.W.2d 541, but Kelly noted a fundamental difference.
In Asboth, officers arrested the driver before seizing the vehicle as a suspect in a crime possibly in violation of his probation. In this case, the deputies arrested Brooks after seizing his vehicle. Prior to the vehicle seizure – when the deputies discovered the firearm – was no reason to arrest him because was not suspected of a crime.
“At the time the deputies decided to impound the vehicle, Mr. Brooks was not under arrest, which means he could have simply waited in the car until a licensed driver came to pick it up,” Justice Kelly wrote.
Justice Kelly noted that Brooks’ vehicle, unlike the vehicle in Asboth, was not likely to be at risk of theft or vandalism because it would not sit there indefinitely unattended.
Justice Kelly also noted that police had no duty to locate the registered owner of the vehicle because Brooks was not under arrest and nothing suggested he was not in lawful possession of the car. Thus, he could simply call someone to pick it up.
The unanimous court explained that unlike Asboth, the state failed to prove that leaving car was likely to impede traffic or movement on public or private property.
“If the deputies had to act in their community caretaker role to prevent the vehicle from impeding traffic flow, it was the State’s duty to prove such a necessity,” Justice Kelly wrote. “But the records shows it made no attempt.”
Finally, the supreme court explained that a police department’s policy to impound vehicles when drivers cannot continue to drive does not mean, ipso facto, that the deputies were acting as community caretakers.
“Even if we were to accept that there is a Departmental policy that explicitly requires impoundment under these circumstances, the policy’s existence is not evidence that the deputies were acting as community caretakers,” Justice Kelly wrote.