Impounding a Vehicle may be Unconstitutional
January 4, 2006

Plaintiffs sued the City and a towing company for an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The United States District Court for the District of Oregon, in the case of Miranda v. City of Cornelius; Acme Towing, Inc., granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and plaintiffs appealed. On November 17, 2005, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that impounding a legally parked car was an unreasonable seizure, when there is no reasonable justification for removing it.

BACKGROUND: Mr. Miranda, who was a licensed and insured driver with a valid registration for his car, was teaching his wife to drive. While going around the neighborhood, a police officer noticed their van moving very slowly and erratically. Suspecting that the driver may be impaired or not properly licensed, he activated his lights and followed them until Mrs. Miranda parked the car in the driveway of their home. When he learned that she did not have a valid license, the officer cited her for

driving without a license and her husband for allowing the vehicle to be operated by an unlicensed driver. In addition, the officer had the vehicle towed and impounded pursuant to a city ordinance, which allows impounding a vehicle if it is being operated by a driver who does not have a valid license.

ANALYSIS: The U. S. Supreme Court has previously held that there is sufficient justification for police officers to seize a vehicle if there is probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred. Under Oregon law, however, the minor traffic violations for which the Mirandas were cited had been decriminalized.

After an arrest is made or a citation issued, whether an impoundment is reasonable depends on whether vehicles are creating a hazard, impeding traffic, threatening public safety or subject to vandalism or theft. Under the Fourth Amendment this is known as the “community caretaking doctrine” which, generally, allows impoundment by the police to insure that the location or operation of the vehicle does not jeopardize the public safety.

Impounding a vehicle may also be reasonably ordered if it is necessary to remove the vehicle from its current location and there is no one there to legally remove it, as in the case of an impaired or unlicensed driver.

In the instant case, the car was parked on the owner’s private driveway and was not causing a traffic hazard. Furthermore, impounding a legally parked vehicle is not necessary to enforcing traffic laws. Additionally, Mr. Miranda was a licensed, insured driver, who would have been fully capable of legally removing it from its location, had it been necessary.

The Court rejected the City’s argument that the impoundment acted as a deterrent to repeating future illegal activity. Citing United States v. Duguay , 93 F.3d 346, 352 (7 th Cir. 1996), the Court stated that “(s)uch a rationale would expand the authority of the police regardless of the violation, instead of limiting officers’ discretion to ensure that they act consistently with their role of ‘caretaker of the streets.”


Police officers may rightfully seize a vehicle under certain circumstances. However, whether a traffic violation has occurred, the location of the vehicle, whether or not it is posing a traffic hazard or whether it may be subject to vandalism or theft are determining factors when deciding to impound it. Additionally, if it does need to be towed, because the driver or some other person is able to legally relocate the vehicle, impounding it would not be justified.

In the instant case, because there was no justifiable reason for moving it, the impoundment was unreasonable under the community caretaking doctrine.

As always, we urge that you confer with your department’s legal counsel for advice and guidance on this as well as any other legal question. Should you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at 714-446-1400 or e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.