In United States v. Magdirila, filed on June 23, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court’s denial of a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress contraband found during an inventory search of a vehicle he was driving. In reaching its decision, the Court held that police officers’ failure to precisely comply with their Department’s towing policy when they failed to completely fill out an inventory form did not render the search invalid.
Inglewood Police Department Officers Mark Robinson and Tyler Villicana were on patrol late one night as part of a tactical response to a surge in gang activity in Inglewood. Officer Robinson observed a black Infiniti stopped in an alley with its engine running and lights illuminated as if the driver had the foot on the brake. The vehicle was parked in violation of the municipal code and lacked permanent license plates, in violation of Vehicle Code section 5200(a).
Officer Villicana activated the cruiser’s lights and siren, causing the vehicle’s passenger to exit the vehicle. Officer Villicana questioned the passenger, who admitted he was on parole. Officer Villicana then detained the passenger pending further investigation, and ran a warrants inquiry for the passenger. The inquiry confirmed that the passenger was on parole and subject to a search condition.
As Officer Villicana questioned the passenger, Officer Robinson approached the Infiniti and observed John Magdirila sitting in the driver’s seat with the engine on and his foot on the brake. Magdirila admitted he did not have a driver’s license and stated the vehicle belonged to a friend. Officer Robinson, pursuant to the Inglewood Police Department Vehicle Towing and Release Policy (the “Policy”), decided “from the moment that . . . [Magdirila] admitted he did not have a driver’s license” to impound the vehicle.
Officer Robinson then searched the glove compartment of the vehicle and found a bag of what he believed was crystal methamphetamine. When asked who the crystal methamphetamine belonged to, Magdirila claimed ownership. Officer Robinson arrested Magdirila for possession of methamphetamine in violation of Health and Safety Code section 11377(a), and searched the rest of the vehicle.
During the inventory search, Officer Robinson found a lockbox in the back seat of the vehicle resting on top of a backpack. Magdirila claimed ownership of the lockbox and backpack. Inside the lockbox, Officer Robinson found a loaded semi-automatic pistol, an air pistol, a USB drive, and Magdirila’s EBT card.
Officer Robinson’s decision to impound the vehicle triggered a duty under the Policy to take an “accurate” inventory of the vehicle’s contents on a CHP 180 form. The Policy required officers to list “[a]ll property in a stored or impounded vehicle” and to “be as thorough and accurate as practical in preparing an itemized inventory.” In the “REMARKS” section of the CHP 180 form, Officer Villicana cross-referenced the police report and noted that the vehicle contained an “IPHONE/APPLE WATCH.” In the police report, Officer Robinson listed items contained in the car including, but not limited to, a black backpack, air pistol, ink cartridges, USB flash drive, and an American Express credit card.
Magdirila moved to suppress “all evidence and statements obtained as a result of his unlawful arrest, search, and questioning.” The Government opposed suppression, relying mainly on declarations from the two officers, along with the CHP 180 form and the police report. During a hearing on the motion to suppress, the District Court heard testimony from both officers, and from Magdirila.
After the hearing, the District Court found that Officer Robinson impounded the Infiniti pursuant to the Policy at the moment that Magdirila admitted that he did not have a driver’s license. The District Court also found that the record demonstrated that Officer Robinson conducted an inventory search of the Infiniti pursuant to the Vehicle Inventory requirements set forth in Section 510.4 of the Policy, and that Officer Villicana completed CHP Form 180 pursuant to the Vehicle Storage Report requirements set forth in the Policy’s section 510.2.1.
Based on its findings, the District Court denied Magdirila’s motion to suppress, holding that the contraband was the fruit of a properly conducted inventory search. Magdirila subsequently entered a conditional guilty plea, and the District Court sentenced him to 41 months in prison. Magdirila appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.
On appeal, Magdirila argued that the officers’ inventory search was pretext for an illegal investigatory search. Magdirila also argued that the officers conducted their search in a manner inconsistent with the Policy, as a component of his pretext argument. The District Court had found that the officers properly filled out the CHP 180 form. That finding, in turn, supported the District Court’s holding that the officers performed a valid inventory search.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained that inventory searches that materially deviate from department policy can be invalid. United States v. Garay, 938 F.3d 1108, 1111 (9th Cir. 2019). However, minor noncompliance with department policies does not invalidate an otherwise lawful inventory search. Id. at 1112. The Court also explained that a search conducted pursuant to a regulatory scheme is invalid if the officer’s sole purpose in performing it is investigatory. United States v. Orozco, 858 F.3d 1204, 1210 (9th Cir. 2017). If, however, the officer’s purpose is administrative, the inventory search is valid. United States v. Johnson, 889 F.3d 1120, 1126 (9th Cir. 2018).
The Court explained that in Garay, sheriffs performed an inventory search of a vehicle after engaging in a high-speed chase but failed to fill out the inventory search form required by the sheriff’s department policy. 938 F.3d at 1110-11. The Ninth Circuit there nevertheless had held that the failure to complete the form under the circumstances was not a “material deviation from policy” and did not make the search invalid. Id. at 1112.
Here, the Court stated that the instant case was “considerably clearer than Garay.” Although the officers here did not include “all property” on the CHP 180 form as required by Section 510.2.1, they did fill out an inventory form that included some of the property, including an iPhone and an Apple watch. Moreover, the items contained in the vehicle, but unlisted on the CHP 180 form—including a backpack, Magdirila’s welfare benefits card, the Sentry lockbox, an air gun, a flash drive, and ink jet toner cartridges—were listed on the police report, which Officer Villicana cross-referenced on the CHP 180 form. The Court found that by creating a list of recovered items and incorporating it into the CHP 180 form, Officer Villicana complied substantially with the Policy’s direction to inventory the property in an impounded vehicle. The Court therefore held that the officers’ failure to precisely follow Section 510.4 of the Policy, in and of itself, did not render the inventory search invalid.
The Ninth Circuit next considered Magdirila’s argument that the officers’ inventory search was pretext for an illegal investigatory search. The Court explained that “[w]here the district court does not make a finding on a precise factual issue relevant to the Fourth Amendment analysis, we ‘uphold a trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress if there was a reasonable view to support it.’ United States v. Gooch, 506 F.3d 1156, 1158 (9th Cir. 2007).” The Court rejected Magdirila’s contention that there was not a “reasonable view to support” the lower court’s implied conclusion that Officer Robinson’s purpose in conducting the search was administrative rather than investigatory. The Ninth Circuit observed that the Department’s Policy required the officers to impound the vehicle upon determining that Magdirila was unlicensed. Officer Robinson established Magdirila was unlicensed during his initial questioning of Magdirila and decided to impound the vehicle before discovering methamphetamine in the glove compartment. Given the early stage at which Robinson decided to impound the vehicle, the Ninth Circuit found that it was a “reasonable view” of the evidence that Officer Robinson’s intent at the time the vehicle was impounded was administrative rather than investigatory. Id. at 1158.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals accordingly affirmed the denial of Magdirila’s motion to suppress. The Court of Appeals vacated certain conditions of supervised release that the District Court had imposed, and remanded for their revision.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
Agencies should observe that the Ninth Circuit has held that, although minor noncompliance with department policies does not invalidate an otherwise lawful inventory search, inventory searches that “materially deviate” from department policy can be invalid. United States v. Garay, 938 F.3d 1108, 1111 (9th Cir. 2019). The Court held here that, by creating a list of recovered items and incorporating it into a CHP 180 form, the officer complied substantially with the policy’s direction to inventory the property in the impounded vehicle. The emphasis should be on detailing the items in the vehicle explicitly in an inventory search. Moreover, officers should be made aware of department policy pertaining to this context, and updated on any changes to the policy, to avoid approaching the material deviation conduct prohibited by Garay. It should be noted, however, that the minor deviation from the policy could have been avoided in this instance by listing all inventoried property on the CHP 180 form.
Agencies should also observe that upon establishing that the driver did not have a license, the immediacy of the officer’s decision to impound the vehicle made it a simple matter for the Ninth Circuit to determine that the search was administrative rather than investigatory. Had the officer determined at a later stage to impound the vehicle, or had the connection between the discovery of the unlicensed driver and the decision to impound been more tenuous, the Court might have considered the officers to have conducted an invalid investigatory search.
As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446–1400 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice. The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship.
 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 19477 (9th Cir. June 23, 2020).
 Because the Ninth Circuit held the inventory search was proper, the Court did not address the Government’s alternative arguments that (1) the police were entitled to search the glove compartment because of the passenger’s parole search condition, or (2) the evidence would have been inevitably discovered.