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California's 30-Day Impound Law Violates 4th Amendment

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

If police impound your client's car for driving on a suspended license, chances are the police won't give it back until the client pays a hefty fine and penalties.

In California, it also means the client won't get the car for 30 days. Or so it used to be, until one feisty driver sued the police for violating her Fourth Amendment rights.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said police unlawfully held onto a driver's car after she presented a valid driver's license and offered to pay the fees. The court in Brewster v. Beck said she was entitled to reclaim her property and pursue damages.

Dude, Where's My Car?

The case arose after Lamya Brewster loaned her car to her brother-in-law. He was stopped by Los Angeles police who learned that his driver's license was suspended.

The officers seized the vehicle under California Vehicle Code section 14602.6(a)(1),
which authorizes police to impound a vehicle when the driver has a suspended license. The law also says they may hold a vehicle for 30 days.

After Brewster found out what happened, she went to the police and presented her driver's license and registration. She also offered to pay the impound fees, but the police refused and kept the car for 30 days.

Brewster filed a class action lawsuit, alleging the 30-day impound law was a warrantless seizure. The trial judge dismissed, saying it was a valid administrative penalty.

Not So Fast

The appeals court disagreed. Judge Alex Kozinski, writing for the unanimous panel, said the police may have lawfully seized the car, but it was no longer a lawful seizure once the driver presented her driver's license and offered to pay the fines.

"The Fourth Amendment doesn't become irrelevant once an initial seizure has run its course," the court said. "A seizure is justified under the Fourth Amendment only to the extent that the government's justification holds force. Thereafter, the government must cease the seizure or secure a new justification."

Reversing the trial court, the appeals court said the Fourth Amendment "is implicated by a delay in returning the property, whether the property was seized for a criminal investigation, to protect the public, or to punish the individual."

In California, the ruling should be good news for criminal defense lawyers and clients whose vehicles are seized. For police impounds, not so much.

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