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Recent Decision Limiting Scope Of Inventory Searches

As a defense attorney, one of the most questionable law enforcement tactics during the course of real time arrests is the nature by which supposed evidence is acquired. Many people have been educated as to constitutional restraints against police search and seizure toward our respective citizens. Consequently, in my sphere of defense practice it has stood to reason that many have consulted with me as to lawful police procedure as to automobile searches that have taken place within the borders of Indiana.

As a general matter, many people grow somewhat frustrated at the ways in which the general principal of preserving the rights of citizens to be secure from police search and confiscation has been gradually diminished. As criminal case law develops within each respective state of our union, it is the inevitable danger of courts bending over backwards to uphold a police arrest that in time slowly erodes the above referenced constitutional protections to be free from state intrusion.

Although general constitutional rights such as the right against unlawful search and seizure are considered directives by which each state must strive to preserve, the individual states each have a role to play in drafting their own state laws and the application of those longs so long as in accord with constitutional principals.

One of the most insidious constitutional exceptions that each state jurisdiction has crafted has been within the area of what is known as the “inventory search.” This flawed concept in my view has allowed for unscrupulous law enforcement officials throughout America the ability to circumvent the constitution by broadening the scope of any arrest that takes place during the course of an automobile stop.

Ironically, this inventory search exception was originally intended to safeguard the rights of citizens who have been arrested as a means by which to ensure that an individual’s personal possessions are documented and properly held until such time as such possessions may be lawfully returned to its rightful owner.

For example, if I am the sole occupant of a motor vehicle driven during the course of a dui arrest on a public highway, it stands to reason that it is not within the public interest to allow my belongings in that vehicle to remain unattended within a public place should an arrest take place. In such circumstance, rules have been promulgated throughout America to allow for police officials to seize such possessions within a vehicle so as to prevent theft or other harm to potentially unattended personal property.

Sounds perfectly reasonable right? In theory it is, as in most circumstances inventory searches are properly undertaken as intended and those who have had cause to be taken into police custody have their documented possessions available to be returned to them when warranted.

However, as is prone to happen within the context of granted police authority, isolated bad actors with police powers abuse such legal authority in ways not originally intended by the court system. In fact, in many instances failure to have a sober law abiding citizen in a vehicle with you subjects the driver to unfettered police ability to ransack a vehicle should cause for arrest be established.

For one accompanied within a vehicle by a sober of age individual, the inventory search can be thwarted due to the means by which the vehicle can be driven away from the scene by an individual authorized by the owner/arrestee.

For the sole occupant driver, it is usually the sworn word of a police officer alone that stands in the way of an unethical police official from lazily using the inventory exception as a means by which to retrieve any items he or she desires from the vehicle ostensibly to collect, document and later safeguard these possessions, for the benefit of the citizen of course.

Over time, continued instances of misconduct as to the intended lawful application of the inventory search demanded refined rules limiting it’s prospect for abuse. Most notably, in Indiana as in most other states, court rulings have thrown out any and all inventory search evidence seized under the guise of safeguarding one’s personal belongings where an established procedure for the retrieval and possession of such property by police have not been established.

In various derivations, most U.S. courts in one way or another have enunciated that if the inventory exception to constitutional rules against search and seizure is to be permissible, it must be in accord with strict written policies of the respective police department initiating the arrest.

In so doing, courts have shifted the burdens to police agencies to confront this issue and take the time necessary to enact specific written procedures to prevent the abuse of the inventory search or face the dismissal of such evidence within a court of law.

In the wake such required practice, police agencies have since obliged the courts with such written policies on most occasions.  Of course merely having such a written policy is not in and of itself a means by which to curb the abuse of police misconduct. If an officer is determined to swear under oath that an incriminating piece of evidence is found in an area lawfully within the scope of a written policy regulated inventory search, courts tend to uphold the validity of such a search.

However, in a refreshing stance against the continued abuse of inventory search evidence, the Indiana court of appeals a few months back issued a ruling constraining the practice even with the existence of written inventory search policy.

In Sams V. State, a warrantless search of a fast food bag and box found within a vehicle during the course of an inventory search contained 25 grams of methamphetamine. However, the court issued an important rebuke to a written inventory search policy that is basically unlimited in scope. As such, the court concluded that unless reasonable limits to the procedure of such a search have been clearly defined within a policy that its officers understand, the fruits of such a search will be considered illegally obtained.

To find otherwise would pay lip service to the constitution to merely allow all inventory searches to be held valid so long as law enforcement’s unchecked authority to use such search without restraint was reduced to writing.

Although our court of appeals’ recent ruling is a valuable precedent, it is incumbent upon all motorists, especially those driving alone to understand that in the aftermath of a police arrest for dui or other driving offense, your possessions within the vehicle may be fair game for police seizure.

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