Question: Is a peace officer’s inventory search illegal if the officer follows his department’s inventory policy?
Quick answer: No, as long as the policy is well-established and authorizes a search of all interior areas of the vehicle before ordering a tow.
Facts: While on patrol, a police officer passed a vehicle thought to be involved in a recent nightclub shooting. The officer continued to watch the SUV after it passed, noticing it made a quick left turn into a driveway without using a signal. The officer turned around, activated his lights, and stopped behind the SUV to approach the driver, defendant Rudolph Jackson. When the officer approached, he saw that both Jackson and the car’s passenger were holding open beer bottles. Jackson also said he didn’t have a valid driver’s license. At that point, the officer realized that Jackson’s SUV was not the vehicle from the nightclub shooting, but he arrested Jackson anyway for the open container violation.
The officer conducted a background check on Jackson and his passenger, which revealed that both had suspended licenses and that Jackson had an outstanding arrest warrant. The officer called to have the car towed because it was illegally parked and because neither Jackson nor his passenger could drive it to another location because of their suspended licenses and alcohol consumption. Before the tow, the officer performed an inventory search of the SUV. He found a six-pack of beer with two opened bottles. Also, on the floor of the driver’s seat, where it looked like the carpet had been torn, the officer found a concealed .380 Cobra handgun. Jackson was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the handgun on Fourth Amendment grounds, including the officer’s inventory search.
Why this case is important: The court held that the officer’s search of Jackson’s SUV didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. An inventory search may not be conducted for purposes of investigation, and it must follow the officer’s established inventory search policy. Here, the officer was following his department’s established procedure, under which an officer has discretion as to whether to tow the vehicle. The policy also stated that, if the officer chooses to have the car towed, the officer should then take inventory of both the exterior and interior of the car beforehand, even taking inventory of the contents from any unlocked compartments or containers.
While it is true that a department’s established inventory policy doesn’t give officers complete freedom to intrude into every space of the vehicle, including ripping up the interior carpet, in this case, the officer simply checked under the already worn and torn carpeting.
Keep in mind: If your department has an established inventory policy, follow it. In most cases, this will prevent any evidence you find from being suppressed. But remember, you can’t substitute an inventory search for an investigative search. Therefore, searching underneath the carpet or ripping apart a vehicle’s interior most likely will not be permitted under your department’s policy. The intrusion in each case must be limited in scope to the places in a car where you could reasonably conclude that personal property might be found.
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