30-Day Vehicle Impoundment is a Seizure Requiring Fourth Amendment Compliance
Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Class Action Against LAPD
A 30-day impoundment of a vehicle pursuant to California Vehicle Code section 14602.6(a)(1) triggered Fourth Amendment concerns, a federal appeals court has ruled. In deciding Brewster v. Beck last week, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s dismissal of a class action lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department that challenged the section and the Department’s impound policy. The appeals court concluded that the 30-day impoundment constituted a seizure that required compliance with the Fourth Amendment.
In Brewster, the plaintiff loaned her vehicle to her brother-in-law, who had a suspended license. The plaintiff’s brother-in-law was subsequently stopped by a police officer. Upon discovering that his license was suspended, the car was impounded under section 14602.6(a)(1) and the LAPD’S impound policy, which mirrors the statutory authorization.
Section 14602.6(a)(1) authorizes the seizure and impoundment of vehicles for 30 days when the driver has a suspended license. Section 14602.6(a)(1) further states that “vehicle[s] so impounded shall be impounded for 30 days.”
The plaintiff appeared three days after the impoundment at a Department hearing and offered proof that she was the owner and she had a valid driver’s license. At the hearing, she requested early release of her vehicle, but the Department refused, citing the 30-day language in section 14602.6(a)(1) and its own impound policy.
In 2014, the plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, the Police Department and Chief Charlie Beck. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss on several grounds, including that the plaintiff failed to state claim because the 30-day impoundment was a valid administrative penalty. The district court agreed with the defendants and granted the motion to dismiss. The plaintiff appealed the district court’s dismissal of her case. The issue on appeal was whether the Department’s 30-day impoundment of the vehicle constituted a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes.
The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the district court and clarified that the challenge raised by the plaintiff was whether the 30-day impoundment violated the Fourth Amendment, not whether the impoundment was a valid penalty or forfeiture under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The Ninth Circuit distinguished between the initial seizure and the continued seizure and provided that, while the initial seizure was justified, the continued seizure was not. According to the Ninth Circuit, the emergency justification for the initial seizure expired once the plaintiff provided proof of ownership and possession of a valid driver’s license. At that time, the Department had to “cease the seizure or secure a new justification.”
This opinion is a reminder that strict compliance with statutory authorization may not immunize public agencies from liability. That is, a Fourth Amendment inquiry exists independently of what is permitted or authorized by statute. Moreover, the opinion is also a reminder that justifications for seizure of property must exist every step of the way.
If you have any questions about this decision or how it may impact your agency, please contact the authors of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.
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