This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Murray County District Court
File No. K60170
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Kelly O’Neill Moller, Assistant Attorney General, Suite 500, 525 Park Street, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Paul A. Malone, Murray County Attorney, 2605 Broadway Avenue, Box 256, Slayton, MN 56172-0256 (for respondent)
John M. Stuart, Minnesota Public Defender, Steven P. Russett, Assistant Public Defender, Suite 600, 2829 University Avenue Southeast, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
Appellant Christopher Paige Johnson appeals from his conviction of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia and fifth-degree controlled substance offense, arguing that the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress the evidence that supported these convictions. Johnson contends that the police improperly impounded his vehicle and used the impoundment as a “ruse to search for drugs.” Because we conclude that the impoundment of Johnson’s vehicle was not a pretext for a search for drugs, we affirm.
Slayton Police Officer Brian Gass stopped a vehicle that had crossed the center line on Highway 359 in Murray County at approximately 12:30 a.m. Officer Gass asked Johnson, the driver, for his driver’s license and proof of insurance. Johnson gave Officer Gass his license but stated that it had been revoked. Johnson provided only an expired certificate of insurance. Officer Gass contacted dispatch and discovered that the vehicle was not registered to Johnson, who said he had purchased the vehicle four months earlier.
Officer Gass told Johnson he would be ticketed for driving after revocation and having no proof of insurance. Officer Gass decided to have the car towed because it was not registered to Johnson and was not insured. He testified that it is standard procedure to tow a vehicle when the driver has no proof of insurance. Officer Gass called a tow truck and arranged for another officer to take Johnson’s passengers home. Officer Gass drove Johnson to a friend’s house and then went directly to the Slayton Police Department’s impound building where Johnson’s vehicle was taken.
At the impound building, Officer Gass opened Johnson’s car door in order to lock the car. He wanted to lock the door because Johnson had asked Officer Gass earlier whether the car would be locked inside of the building. Johnson was concerned because he had just installed a $2,000 stereo system in the car. When Officer Gass opened the door, he saw a baggie of what appeared to be marijuana on the floor between the door and the passenger’s seat. Officer Gass testified that the baggie was in “plain view.” Officer Gass then searched the entire inside of the vehicle, conducted an inventory search and, as a result, found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine.
On March 20, 2001, the state charged Johnson with driving after revocation, failure to provide vehicle insurance, possession of a small amount of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and controlled-substance crime in the fifth degree. The district court denied Johnson’s motion to suppress the evidence seized during the search of the vehicle. The case was submitted to the district court on stipulated facts, and the court found Johnson guilty of all charges. Johnson appeals his drug-related convictions, arguing that Officer Gass impounded Johnson’s vehicle as a pretext to search for drugs and that the evidence seized should be suppressed. See State v. Holmes, 569 N.W.2d 181, 187 (Minn. 1997) (noting that the police are prohibited from using “an inventory search as a pretext for a purely investigatory search”).
When reviewing pretrial suppression rulings, this court “may independently review the facts and determine, as a matter of law, whether the district court erred in suppressing—or not suppressing—the evidence.” State v. Harris, 590 N.W.2d 90, 98 (Minn. 1999) (citation omitted). Questions of law are reviewed de novo. See State v. Camacho, 561 N.W.2d 160, 170 (Minn. 1997) (reviewing a question of law de novo).
Police may take automobiles into custody “[i]n the interests of public safety” and as part of their “community caretaking functions.” South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 368, 96 S. Ct. 3092, 3097 (1976) (quotation omitted). Police officers have the authority to impound vehicles that impede traffic or threaten public safety. Id. at 369, 96 S. Ct. at 3097. But “[t]he state’s interest in impounding must outweigh the individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.” State v. Goodrich, 256 N.W.2d 506, 510 (Minn. 1977).
We hold that Officer Gass’s decision to impound Johnson’s vehicle was reasonable under the circumstances. See Holmes, 569 N.W.2d at 187 n.6 (recognizing that “courts must determine the reasonableness of the impoundment prior to determining the reasonableness of the inventory search”) (citation omitted).
Johnson does not contest the fact that he was subject to a criminal penalty for failure to produce proof of insurance, but argues that a police officer is not permitted to immediately tow a car for a driver’s failure to produce proof of insurance. Officer Gass, however, was not as concerned with Johnson’s failure to provide proof of insurance as he was with the fact that the vehicle was uninsured. It is a crime in Minnesota for an owner of a vehicle to operate the vehicle, or permit its operation on a public highway, knowing or having a reason to know that the vehicle is not insured in compliance with the Minnesota No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act. Minn. Stat. § 169.797, subds. 2, 4 (2000). Officer Gass testified that he was concerned that this uninsured vehicle could not be legally driven by Johnson or anyone else.
Johnson contends that the state failed to present evidence that Officer Gass’s decision to impound the vehicle for lack of insurance was based on standardized criteria and was consistent with department policy. Impoundment is permissible so long as the police employ “standardized criteria” when impounding vehicles. State v. Robb, 605 N.W.2d 96, 104 (Minn. 2000) (citation omitted). In Robb, the supreme court held that the state did not meet its burden of demonstrating that the vehicles could have been properly impounded because the state “did not provide any information regarding standardized criteria applicable in this case.” 605 N.W.2d at 104. Here, Officer Gass testified that it was standard police procedure to tow an uninsured vehicle. Therefore, the state presented unrefuted evidence that the car was towed pursuant to standardized procedures.
Furthermore, Officer Gass’s decision to have the vehicle towed was not based solely on its uninsured status. Impoundment of Johnson’s car was also based on the fact that the vehicle was not properly registered. Minnesota law prohibits a person from driving or parking a car on any highway if the car is not registered. Minn. Stat. § 169.79(a) (2000).
In addition, Johnson’s car was parked on the highway after midnight. Officer Gass’s testimony implied that Johnson’s car was parked in an area where it could cause a hazard. See Minn. Stat. § 168B.04, subd. 2(b)(ii) (2000) (granting the police the authority to impound a vehicle if it is located in a place where it could pose a “traffic hazard to the traveling public”).
Johnson argues that his vehicle could not be towed until it had been left unattended for four hours.
In enforcing state and local parking and traffic laws, a towing authority may not tow, or allow or require the towing of, a motor vehicle from public property for a parking or traffic violation until four hours after issuance of the traffic ticket or citation * * * .
Minn. Stat. § 169.041, subd. 3 (2000). Johnson contends that he had four hours to remove his car from the highway and that Officer Gass never gave him the opportunity to arrange for the removal of his car. The record, however, does not contain any evidence indicating that Johnson sought to take responsibility for removing the vehicle. In fact, after Officer Gass informed Johnson that the car would be towed, Officer Gass stated that “Johnson seemed to understand and was cooperative.”
Moreover, it is unreasonable to assume that the problems making it illegal for anyone to operate this vehicle could have been cured by 4:30 a.m. As we have noted in a previous unpublished opinion, “[s]tatutory towing procedures are not intended to prevent inevitable, statutorily authorized police work,” and, in any event, violation of this section is not dispositive in the analysis of Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure issues. See State v. Lien, 265 N.W.2d 833, 841 (Minn. 1978) (holding that evidence was admissible against defendant even though the police technically violated the statute governing nighttime warrants because the police had not violated defendant’s constitutional rights).
We hold that Johnson’s claim that Officer Gass impounded Johnson’s car as a pretext for conducting a search is without merit. Because impoundment was reasonable under the circumstances and because Johnson does not challenge the discovery of the marijuana inside the vehicle once it was impounded or the propriety of the subsequent inventory search, we affirm.