United States v. Smith, No. 06-3112 (3d Cir. April 9, 2008)
Lancaster police arrested the driver and passenger of a car stopped in an area "in which parked vehicles were subject to being damaged, vandalized, or stolen." Police could not identify the owner of the vehicle, although they were able to determine that it did not belong to either occupant. Based on these facts, one of the officers decided to impound the vehicle, and during a subsequent inventory search discovered a handgun in the glove compartment. After losing a motion to suppress firearm, the defendant entered a conditional plea to a violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g) and 924(c).
On appeal, the defendant argued that the decision to impound the car had to "be exercised pursuant to standardized criteria or the seizure is unconstitutional." The defendant further argued that the Lancaster Police Department did not have a standard procedure regarding the impounding of vehicles. Notably, the defendant did not challenge the actual search itself, and the Third circuit thus limited its review to the "validity of the impoundment rather than the validity of the actual search of the vehicle."
Noting that this was a case of first impression in the the circuit, and recognizing that the other circuits are split on the issue, the Third Circuit joined the First Circuit in holding that the focus of the analysis is the overall reasonableness of the impoundment for a community caretaking purpose. In adopting this approach, the Court rejected the D.C. Circuit's logic "requiring that there be standardized police procedures governing impoundments." Thus, the Court concluded that "a reasonable impoundment does not become unreasonable merely because the police do not impound all vehicles found in similar circumstances any more than an unreasonable impoundment becomes reasonable merely because all vehicles in similar circumstances are impounded." Applying this approach to the facts of the case, the Third Circuit concluded that the discretionary decision to impound the vehicle was reasonable, especially given the officers' concern regarding the vehicle's safety.