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Warrantless Inventory Search of a Vehicle

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by: D hubner • June 23, 2010 • no comments

Warrantless inventory searches can be performed pursuant to impoundment of a vehicle. This post addresses how the Oregon courts decide whether an inventory search was valid.

The broad principle is that an inventory search must not have any investigatory intent. The fact that an impoundment was lawful does not automatically mean that the related inventory search was lawful too. See United States v. Hellman, 566 F.2d 442, 443-44 (9th Cir. 1977). If there's an investigatory motive, "This alone is sufficient to conclude that the warrantless search of the car was unreasonable." Id. at 444.

The recognized purposes of an inventory search are: (1) To safeguard the owner's property while he/she is in custody; (2) To reduce false complaints against the police for lost property; and (3) To ensure officer safety (when circumstances indicate that this is a concern). See State v. Atkinson, 298 Ore. 1, 7-8 (1984); State v. Eldridge, 207 Ore. App. 337, 341 (2006).

Oregon uses a three-part test to decide if an inventory search is valid for those recognized purposes. The test requires that: (1) The impoundment was lawful; (2) There is a systematic search procedure in place which does not allow for individual discretion by the searcher; and (3) The search in question did not deviate from the established procedure. See State v. Willhite, 110 Ore. App. 567, 570 (1992); Eldridge at 341. The systematic procedure of prong #2 must limit individual discretion both as to whether a search is conducted, and as to the scope of the search. See Willhite at 573.

Willhite and Eldridge both give us examples of police procedures which are not limited enough, and thus fail prong #2. In Willhite, the State tried to demonstrate existence of a proper administrative procedure by relying on a Tigard Police memo which read:

"The officer will complete a Report on all towed vehicles. The Property Inventory will be completed and indicated on the Report. If the property is of great value (i.e., [sic] jewels, money, expensive camera [sic], portable sample kits, etc.), that property will be noted on the standard Property Receipt Form and will be taken to the Property Room."

The court said that this procedure did not adequately limit individual discretion as to the scope of an inventory search, and therefore the search in that case was invalid. Willhite at 573.

In Eldridge, the North Bend Police used an inventory search policy which simply said: "(1) every impounded vehicle 'shall be completely searched and inventoried,' and (2) 'make a complete inventory of all vehicle contents.'" Eldridge at 342 (emphasis in original). This inventory search was invalid too, because the policy gave no actual instructions on how to conduct the search, nor any assurance that searches would be free from "discretion or arbitrariness." Id. at 342-43.

The upshot being: If the police agency in question doesn't have very specific guidelines in place for inventory search procedures, their searches should be found invalid.

Also worth noting: In Atkinson, the Oregon Supreme Court indicated that officers are not allowed to examine papers they find during an inventory search. There, the court was discussing the U.S. Supreme Court inventory case South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976). In Opperman, the Court considered it appropriate for officers performing an inventory search to remove "miscellaneous papers" from the car's glovebox. The Atkinson court emphasized that those papers were removed without examination, and said it would probably be inappropriate for officers to examine papers from the car. "The Opperman opinion indicates that a majority of the Supreme Court of the United States would not approve of examining such documents as a part of the routine vehicle inventory process." Atkinson at 10-11 ("such documents" were a checkbook, a loan book, and a social security card).