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May 2012
Once again, a failure to follow precedent at the 9th Circuit

“We’ve given police a simple, common-sense rule to deal with vehicles that are left unattended because the driver has been placed under arrest.”

If those words had been used by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of the U.S. vs. Cervantes, we’d say, “Amen!” Unfortunately, those were the words of dissenting Judge Sandra Ikuta in a three-judge panel ruling of the Court.

As we’ve written on many occasions, the 9th Circuit Court has a knack for arriving at result-oriented decisions that must later be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why that reputation is deserved when you consider this particular case. This case should be yet another decision that the Supreme Court, and an en banc panel of the 9th Circuit, reverses.

Jesus Antonio Ramos Cervantes’ vehicle was stopped by LAPD officers for a traffic violation, and since he was an unlicensed driver, his car was later impounded by LAPD officers. The officers, following well established law on impounds and LAPD policies regarding impounds, found two kilograms of cocaine in the car. Federal District Court Judge John Walker denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the seized cocaine.

A federal appeals court in Pasadena found that LAPD officers who stopped Cervantes should not have impounded the car, but merely cited Cervantes and moved along. Courthouse News reporter Tim Hull recounts the details of the case in his recent story. The twists and turns the majority took to ignore established and straightforward law are admirably laid out in the dissent by Judge Ikuta. She rightfully argued that the majority had unnecessarily complicated a simple issue and had “silently overruled our long line of precedents establishing the community caretaking doctrine.”

“No complex legal analysis is required,” Judge Ikuta wrote. “The police merely have to determine whether it’s necessary to remove the vehicle from a public location in order to ‘prevent it from (1) creating a hazard to other drivers or (2) being a target for vandalism or theft.’ If the officers determine that either prong of this simple test is met, they may impound the vehicle in furtherance of their community caretaking function.”

A result-oriented decision by two liberal 9th Circuit judges should not be allowed to complicate what are established and straightforward rules. This is not rocket science. It is common sense. We look forward to another court reviewing this decision and upholding the right of the LAPD officers to legally impound and search vehicles under the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment.

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