Upon arresting a person and impounding their vehicle, it is a common, yet sometimes abused, practice to conduct an inventory search of the person’s vehicle. The purpose of an inventory search if to determine the contents of the vehicle for a variety of administrative reasons. However, it can be used to conduct what would otherwise be an unreasonable search in violation of a person’s constitutional rights.
What is an Inventory Search?
An inventory search is a warrantless search of a vehicle that has been lawfully impounded by the police. There are three general purposes of an inventory search:
- To protect the owner’s property located inside the vehicle by creating a list of property contained inside the vehicle at the time of impoundment.
- To protect law enforcement from claims by the owner of lost or stolen property as a result of impounding the vehicle.
- To protect the police from dangerous items that may be inside the vehicle.
Why are Inventory Searches Lawful?
Law enforcement is allowed to conduct inventory searches because they are not supposed to be used to find incriminating evidence, but are administrative in nature. Due to it being administrative in nature, inventory searches are not subject to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement or probable cause review.
Inventory searches must be reasonable to be considered constitutional. Thus, a valid inventory search must follow establishes procedures and not be disguised as a warrantless search. However, this process can be abused if a law enforcement agency promulgates a procedure that directly or indirectly seeks to circumvent the Fourth Amendment.
Ohio Supreme Court and Inventory Searches
The Supreme Court of Ohio recently ruled on a case involving the search of a woman’s purse that was claimed to be related to an inventory search, among other justifications. The case, State v. Banks-Harvey, began when an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper stopped the vehicle Banks-Harvey was in for speeding. The vehicle had two other occupants.
The trooper asked for all three occupants’ licenses. Banks-Harvey gave the trooper a state identification card as she did not have a license. The other two occupants provided their social security numbers. The trooper determined that Banks-Harvey and one of the other occupants had warrants for their arrest. The driver, who also owned the vehicle, did not.
The trooper asked the driver for consent to search. The driver declined and Banks-Harvey and the other occupants were arrested based on the outstanding warrants. The trooper then entered their vehicle and retrieved Banks-Harvey’s purse. The trooper searched the purse and found a baggie with ten yellow pills, three needles, one of which contained brown liquid, three capsules that contained brown powder, and three capsules containing white powder.
The trooper showed the items to another officer at the scene, who stated that he thought he saw a capsule in the vehicle. The officer searched the vehicle and found capsules and a needle. Banks-Harvey was charged with felony drug possession and misdemeanor drug paraphernalia and drug abuse instruments based on the items found in her purse.
Motion to Suppress Items Found Rejected by the Trial Court
Banks-Harvey’s attorney filed a motion to suppress the contents found in Banks-Harvey’s purse, arguing that the search was a violation of her constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. The prosecution argued that the evidence should not be suppressed because the search fell within one of the following three exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement:
- Search-incident-to-arrest exception;
- Plain-view exception; and
- Inventory-search exception.
The first two exceptions argued by the prosecution are completely idiotic to argue. It is clear, pursuant to Arizona v. Gant, that the search-incident-to-arrest exception does not apply as Banks-Harvey was already handcuffed and secured in the trooper’s cruiser. The arrestee must be within reach of the place to justify the search under this exception as the exception is justified based on officer safety.
The prosecution’s argument is equally ridiculous under the plain-view exception because nothing about a purse, by itself, suggests that it would possess an item incriminating in nature. Without some form of evidence suggesting that it was immediately apparent that the purse contained evidence of criminal activity, the argument that the search falls under the plain-view exception pursuant to Minnesota v. Dickerson fails.
The trial court, in addition to rejecting the search-incident-to-arrest and plain-view arguments, also rejected the inventory-search argument pursuant to South Dakota v. Opperman, because the vehicle that the purse was located in was not impounded itself.
However, despite rejecting all three arguments by the prosecution, the trial court denied the motion to suppress. The trial court concluded that even though the trooper did not have probable cause to search the vehicle at the time the trooper searched Banks-Harvey’s purse, the other officer had probable cause to search the vehicle based on his observation of a capsule in the vehicle. Thus, the contraband found in Banks-Harvey’s purse would have inevitably been discovered during the search of the vehicle.
Appeal of Trial Court’s Ruling
Banks-Harvey appealed the decision of the trial court denying her motion to suppress. The prosecution now argued the following reasons to justify the search:
- The drugs would inevitably have been found discovered during the search of the vehicle;
- The drugs were discovered during a valid inventory search of Banks-Harvey’s purse; and
- The drug would have inevitably been discovered during an inventory search of the purse at the jail.
The appellate court upheld the reasonableness of the search based on a different reason than the reason the trial court upheld the search. The appellate court rejected the trial court’s reasoning that the evidence would inevitably have been found during a valid search of the vehicle. Instead, the appellate court held that since the retrieval of the purse was done pursuant to a standard promulgated by the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the contents of the purse were admissible as fruits of a valid inventory search of the purse.
This was a dangerous argument put forth by the appellate court as it comes close to endorsing the view that if law enforcement has a policy regarding inventory searches, the court will deem any search conducted pursuant to that policy as constitutionally valid.
Fourth Amendment and the Inventory Search Exception
The inventory-search exception is a well-defined exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Illinois v. Lafayette. It is not subject to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement or probable cause review because it is conducted for administrative, not investigative, purposes. State v. Mesa. Even if a less intrusive means of protecting property were available, such as placing the property in a sealed bag in an evidence locker, it is not unreasonable for police to search any article or container as a procedure incident to incarceration. See Lafayette.
The Ohio Supreme Court accepted Banks-Harvey’s appeal on the following proposition of law:
“Because the mere adoption of a policy by the Highway Patrol to retrieve and inventory the belongings of an arrested person cannot authorize unconstitutional police action, the warrantless entry into a car to retrieve the purse of an already-arrested person and the subsequent warrantless removal and search of that purse violates the Fourth Amendment and Section 14, Article I of the Ohio Constitution.”
The prosecution offered the following proposition of law:
“When conducted pursuant to standard policy or procedure, the seizure of an arrestee’s purse before the arrestee is taken to jail or incarcerated falls within the inventory search exception to the warrant requirement and does not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution or Article 1, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution. When the State’s evidence establishes that the seizure and search fall within the inventory search exception and further establishes that the contraband found in the purse would have been inevitably discovered in a lawful search of the vehicle and/or a search of the arrestee’s belongings at the jail, a trial court properly does not suppress the evidence.”
Ohio Supreme Court Overrules Appellate Court
The Ohio Supreme Court held that even though inventory searches are appropriate, that was not the issue in this case. The issue is whether the warrantless retrieval of the purse from the vehicle was lawful based on the Ohio State Highway Patrol policy regarding inventory searches. The court concluded that it was not and, therefore, the subsequent search of the purse could not be justified as a valid inventory search.
While the Ohio Supreme Court did not take issue with the policy regarding inventory searches, the Court felt that the prosecution had failed to establish that the search of Banks-Harvey’s purse fell under the inventory-search exception. Specifically, at the time the trooper retrieved Banks-Harvey’s purse, she was already handcuffed and in the trooper’s vehicle, and her identity had been confirmed. Neither her purse, not the vehicle that the purse was located in, came into police custody as a result of her arrest. Thus, the search of her purse cannot find solace under the inventory-search exception.
It should be noted, however, that if Banks-Harvey had requested that the trooper retrieve her purse from the vehicle, the search of her purse would be justified. Furthermore, if Banks-Harvey were arrested on the street with her purse on her person, the search incident-to-lawful-arrest exception would apply. However, a policy promulgated by a law enforcement agency that a person’s effects go with them to jail does not, by itself, permit an officer to retrieve the personal effects from a place that is protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Accordingly, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the appellate court, and vacated Banks-Harvey convictions and sentence.
Columbus and Delaware, Ohio Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Columbus or Delaware, Ohio, contact Johnson Legal, LLC and speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Attorney David Johnson of Johnson Legal, LLC will discuss your case and assist you in fighting the charges. Call (614) 987-0192 or send an email to schedule a consultation regarding your criminal offense case.
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