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United States v. Morris

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 8, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Alauna Gaye Morris Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: November 16, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa - Sioux City

          Before BENTON, BEAM, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          BENTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Alauna Gaye Morris conditionally pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A), and 846. The district court[1] sentenced her to 120 months' imprisonment. She appeals the denial of her motion to suppress. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, this court affirms.

         I.

         In September 2016, Deputy Taylor of the Clay County Sheriff's Office ("CCSO") stopped a recreational vehicle driven by Morris to execute an arrest warrant. After the arrest, Deputy Taylor and another deputy impounded the RV. During an inventory search, they found marijuana, two glass pipes, and a digital scale. They did not complete the inventory, testifying it "didn't seem reasonable to continue searching" because parts of the RV were "inaccessible." The next day, with a search warrant, they found 69.5 grams of meth at her residence. The next week, with a search warrant, they found 138 grams of meth and $9, 500 in cash in the RV.

         Morris moved to suppress "all evidence and 'fruits of the poisonous tree' obtained as a result of the unlawful seizure and search" of her RV. After a suppression hearing, the magistrate judge recommended denying the motion. The district court adopted the magistrate's findings and recommendation. Morris appeals, arguing the inventory search was unlawful. Reviewing the denial of a motion to suppress, this court reviews "legal conclusions de novo and factual findings for clear error." United States v. Woods, 747 F.3d 552, 555 (8th Cir. 2014). "A credibility determination made by a district court after a hearing on the merits of a motion to suppress is virtually unassailable on appeal." United States v. Frencher, 503 F.3d 701, 701 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         II.

         Morris argues the government failed to prove the CCSO had a standardized policy for impounding and inventorying vehicles. The record does not contain a copy of the written policy because Morris objected to its admission at trial. However, Deputy Taylor testified about it. According to him, since August 2015, the CCSO has had a written policy about impounding and inventorying vehicles. It designates four times a deputy may impound a vehicle: (1) abandonment; (2) accident; (3) driver arrest; or (4) traffic hazard. The policy allows, but does not require, deputies to release a vehicle to a registered, insured driver. It is CCSO practice to release vehicles only to drivers present at the time of the stop.

         Once impounded, the policy requires deputies to inventory a vehicle's contents, including the trunk, for items valued at $25 or more. Although not written in the policy, it is CCSO practice to inventory containers if deputies believe they may have items valued at $25 or more. The policy requires deputies to complete a full inventory unless unreasonable to do so.

         The absence of the written policy in the record does not preclude establishing its content. "While a written policy may be preferable, testimony can be sufficient to establish police impoundment procedures." United States v. Betterton, 417 F.3d 826, 830 (8th Cir. 2005). Based on Deputy Taylor's testimony, the magistrate judge found that Deputy Taylor:

[D]id follow the standardized criteria outlined in the written impound policy and the standard practices of the sheriff's office. Deputy Taylor was forthright when he testified. He is familiar with the practices of the sheriff's office, which were the same before and after the impound policy was written. I further credit Deputy Taylor's testimony about the policy and practices in light of his years of service with the sheriff's office, his duties as a routine patrol deputy, and the fact that he impounds vehicles several times per week.

         Adopting the magistrate's findings, the district court added, "Regarding his department's policy, Taylor was unwavering that he knew that the arrest of the vehicle driver and existence of a roadside hazard were two instances in which the policy allows officers to impound a vehicle." The ...


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