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Rohde v. City of Blaine

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 18, 2017

ERICA ROHDE Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BLAINE, Defendant.

          Adam T. Johnson, LUNDGREN & JOHNSON, PSC, and Richard E. Student, MESHBESHER & ASSOCIATES, P.A., for plaintiff.

          Vicki A. Hruby, JARDINE LOGAN & O'BRIEN PLLP, for defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JOHN R. TUNHEIM Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Erica Rohde was convicted and sentenced for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia based on evidence that police officers employed by defendant City of Blaine (the “City”) found in an inventory search while impounding Rohde's car. Rohde appealed her charges to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which reversed, holding that the impoundment was not justified under the Fourth Amendment because Rohde was not arrested prior to the impoundment and because her vehicle did not pose a safety threat. Consequently, Rohde brought the instant action against the City pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 and Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), in which she alleges that the City's written impoundment policy compelled its police officers to impound her vehicle and conduct an inventory search in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Both parties have moved for summary judgment.

         Because the Court finds there is no genuine issue of material fact regarding either the unconstitutional nature of the search or that the search was conducted pursuant to the City's mandatory written impoundment policy, the Court will grant Rohde's motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of the City's liability, and the Court will deny the City's motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         I. INVESTIGATION AND IMPOUNDMENT

         On September 11, 2012, Blaine Police Officer Barry Koch was surveilling a residence suspected of narcotics trafficking. (Aff. of Richard Student (“Student Aff.”), Ex. A (“Omnibus Hr'g Tr.”) at 53:17-20, Mar. 14, 2016, Docket No. 34.) Officer Koch had information that a Chevrolet Monte Carlo vehicle was potentially connected to the residence. (Id. at 63:11-14; 66:2-4.) Officer Koch observed a Chevrolet Monte Carlo vehicle leave the residence, but he confirmed the license plate sequence was not the same as the vehicle potentially connected to the residence. (Id. at 53:20-54:2.) Nevertheless, he conducted a registration check of the vehicle, which indicated the registered owner had a revoked driver's license and the vehicle registration was also revoked. (Id. at 54:3-7.) Officer Koch then requested Blaine Police Officer Albert Champagne stop the vehicle. (Id. at 54:16-24.)

         The vehicle came to a stop on a residential street in response to Officer Champagne's emergency lights. (Id. at 34:16-21; 35:5-7.) Officer Koch testified that the vehicle was not interfering with traffic, causing a traffic hazard, blocking access to any property, or otherwise violating any parking rules.[1] (Id. at 73:25-74:24.) Upon approaching the vehicle, Officer Champagne identified the driver and vehicle owner as Rohde. (Id. at 36:25-37:3.) Officer Champagne explained he stopped the vehicle for a signaling violation and because Rohde's license and registration were revoked. (Id. at 12:7-16.) When Officer Champagne asked for proof of insurance, Rohde indicated that the car was not insured. (Aff. of Vicki A. Hruby (“Hruby Aff.”), Ex. C (“Champagne Dep.”) at 10:3-12, Mar. 15, 2016, Docket No. 40.) Accordingly, Officer Champagne testified:

I told [Rohde] that she would have to step out of the vehicle at this point. It is department policy for violations of no insurance that we do tow the vehicle and do a vehicle inventory. So at that point she was escorted to the back of my car where she was secured. Officer Koch then arrived and began a vehicle inventory per department policy.

(Omnibus Hr'g Tr. at 12:10-18.) Officer Koch testified, however, that Officer Champagne told him the specific grounds for the impoundment was because Rohde did not have liability insurance on the vehicle, had a revoked driver's license, and had revoked vehicle registration. (Hruby Aff., Ex. D (“Koch Dep.”) at 9:18-24.)[2]

         Officer Champagne explained to Rohde that she was “technically” under arrest, by which he meant that she was not free to leave at the moment. (Hruby Aff., Ex. E (“Squad Video”) at 2:52.) Despite telling her this, Officer Champagne did not plan to take her to jail, and instead allowed her to call her mother to attempt to arrange a ride.[3] (Omnibus Hr'g Tr. at 43:9-15; Squad Video at 16:29:48.) During the course of the inventory search, Officer Koch located methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia in Rohde's vehicle. (Squad Video at 16:33:00; Champagne Dep. at 11:11-18, 18:9-19.) Accordingly, Officer Champagne placed Rohde in handcuffs and advised her that she was under arrest. (Champagne Dep. at 18:20-24; Squad Video at 16:43:59.)

         II. THE CITY'S WRITTEN IMPOUNDMENT POLICY

         At the time Rohde's vehicle was impounded, the City maintained a written policy, General Order § 312.0, addressing the Blaine Police Department's impoundment of vehicles. (Hruby Aff., Ex. B (“Olson Dep.”) at 13:8-20; id., Ex. A (“General Order”) at 1-2.) General Order § 312.01(A) states in pertinent part that “[m]otor vehicles shall be impounded” if the vehicle is stopped and it is determined that the driver's license is revoked or that the driver does not have liability insurance.[4] Subsection B also provides that “[m]otor vehicles may be impounded” under certain circumstances not relevant to the present case. Furthermore, General Order § 312.03 - Inventory Procedure for Impounded Vehicles - instructs “[a]n inventory of all vehicles impounded will be conducted. This inventory includes the trunk, glove box, compartments and all locked or unlocked containers within the vehicle.”

         Officer Champagne testified at the omnibus hearing that the circumstances of Rohde's case - revoked driver's license and no insurance - fell within the mandatory impoundment category of General Order § 312.0. (Omnibus Hr'g Tr. at 16:21-17:8.) He also answered in the affirmative during his deposition when asked whether “based on an assessment of the facts and circumstances [he] concluded impoundment of Ms. Rohde's vehicle was mandatory under Section A of the policy.” (Champagne Dep. at 16:10-14.) Likewise, he testified that the inventory search of Rohde's vehicle was conducted pursuant to the inventory provisions of General Order § 312.03. (Id. at 16:18-18:8.)

         Police Chief Christopher Olson - the City's designated Rule 30(b)(6) witness - testified that there could be any number of factual scenarios which present exceptions to the mandatory dictates General Order § 312.01(A) and that the word “shall, ” does not divest the officers of their discretion to adapt and respond to the circumstances confronting them. (Student Aff., Ex. D at 7:15-20, 16:1-17:4, 24:16-22, 30:14-21.) He also explained that the City's General Orders are “guideline[s] of boundaries of what we expect of our officers.” (Id. at 7:3-5.)

         III. UNDERLYING STATE CRIMINAL CASE

         Rohde was charged with fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance, under Minn. Stat. § 152.025, subd. 2(a)(1), and possession of drug paraphernalia, under Minn. Stat. § 152.092, based on evidence that officers found during the inventory search of Rohde's car. State v. Rohde, 852 N.W.2d 260');">852 N.W.2d 260, 261 (Minn. 2014).

         Rohde requested an omnibus hearing and moved to suppress the evidence that Officer Koch had found in her vehicle. Id. at 263-64. Rohde then stipulated that the initial stop was lawful, but argued that the search violated the Fourth Amendment because the police were not authorized to impound her vehicle. Id. at 263. The district court denied Rohde's motion to suppress, and found Rohde guilty on both counts following a stipulated-facts trial. Id. Rohde appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed, holding that impoundment of the vehicle was lawful under various Minnesota statutes.[5]State v. Rohde, 839 N.W.2d 758, 763-64 (Minn.Ct.App. 2013), rev'd 852 N.W.2d 260');">852 N.W.2d 260.

         The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that the focus on whether the impoundment was authorized by Minnesota law was misplaced, as state law is not determinative of whether a search is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Rohde, 852 N.W.2d at 264-65. The court turned to South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976), in which the Supreme Court stated that police may “seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience” pursuant to their “community caretaking functions”. Id. at 265 (quoting Opperman, 428 U.S. at 368-69). The court found that Rohde's vehicle was not violating any parking laws, impeding traffic, or posing a threat to public safety, thus immediately impounding her vehicle was not necessary for public safety. Id. The court also rejected that the police officers had any caretaking authority to protect Rohde's property from theft or protect the police from claims arising therefrom, because at the time the search began, Rohde was present, retained control over the vehicle, and was not under arrest as evidenced by the fact that she was allowed to call her mother to attempt to arrange a ride. Id. at 265-66. Thus, the court concluded the impoundment was not justified under the Fourth Amendment and the inventory search violated Rohde's constitutional rights. Id. at 266.

         IV. STATE FORFEITURE PROCEEDINGS

         Concurrent with the criminal charges, Rohde's vehicle was subject to forfeiture proceedings. On or about October 10, 2012, Rohde challenged the forfeiture and filed a demand for judicial determination of forfeiture pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 609.5314, subd. 3. (See Hruby Aff., Ex. G (“Stipulation”) at 1.) Parties to the action included Rohde as plaintiff and her Monte Carlo vehicle as defendant.[6] The Blaine Police Department was a party of interest, represented by the Anoka County Attorney's Office.[7] (Id. at 1-2.)

         Following the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision in Rohde's case, the parties agreed to resolve the matter and release to Rohde the title of the vehicle at issue. (Id. at 1.) As ...


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