There is often some confusion as to when it is permissible for police to tow an individual's vehicle and perform a an inventory search. The reason for this confusion is that the California Vehicle Code gives the police very broad authority and discretion while case law severely limits police authority to tow and perform inventory searches.
California Vehicle Code Section 22652 states that “Any peace officer... engaged in directing traffic or enforcing parking laws and regulations of a city or county, may remove any vehicle parked or standing on the streets or highways or from a stall or space of a privately or publicly owned or operated offstreet parking facility within the jurisdiction of the city or county when the vehicle is in violation of a local ordinance...” Therefore, according the California Vehicle Code, the police may tow, and thus perform inventory searches, on any vehicle in violation of a local ordinance. However, California Case law has significantly restricted the scope of this section of C
alifornia's Vehicle Code.
In the recent case of The People, v. Alfredo Torres Torres (Torres), the California Court of Appeals ruled that “the decision to impound the vehicle must be justified by a community caretaking function ‘other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.'” Thus, in order to tow and perform an inventory search on a vehicle, there must be some “caretaking” benefit to the community other than the discovery of evidence of criminal activity. In the case of Torres, a police officer pulled over the defendant who then parked in a public parking stall. The defendant then stated that he did not have a valid driver's license. The police officer impounded the defendant's vehicle and discovered illegal drugs inside the vehicle during an inventory search. However, the appellate court found that evidence of those illegal drugs was not admissible because the impoundment of the defendant's vehicle served no cartaking function. Furthermore, the court found that police's reasons for the impoundment and inventory search of the defendant's vehicle were merely a “pretext concealing an investigatory police motive.”
Thus, the police may not tow, impound, or perform inventory searches on vehicles, even though the California Vehicle Code grants authority to do so, when the impoundment is done without a community caretaking purpose.