©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On June 19, 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Jackson [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to inventory searches of automobiles. The facts of Jackson, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
During a roll call meeting on the afternoon of August 17, 2010, supervisors at the Akron, Ohio, Police Department (“APD”) issued a “BOLO” (be on the lookout) alert for a suspect involved in a recent nightclub shooting. The suspect was thought to be driving a black Chevrolet Tahoe with yellow stripes and chrome wheels. Almost immediately after starting his afternoon shift in a marked patrol car, APD Officer Troy Meech, who was familiar with the suspect, spotted a vehicle that resembled the Tahoe. It was traveling in the opposite direction on Rhodes Avenue, a two-lane residential street. The yellow stripes and the chrome wheels on the SUV caught Officer Meech’s attention. As soon as it passed by him, Officer Meech looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the brake lights come on, “as if [the driver] was waiting to see what [Meech] was going to do.” Meech turned around and followed the SUV while attempting to read a temporary license tag on the back of it. As he did so, the driver made a quick left turn into the driveway of a house at 83 Rhodes Avenue without using a turn signal. After observing this traffic infraction, Officer Meech activated his lights and siren and performed a traffic stop. He radioed the vehicle’s license number to APD dispatch and exited his patrol car.
As Officer Meech approached the vehicle, the driver, later identified as defendant Jackson, opened his door. Officer Meech saw that Jackson and his passenger, Kenard Gay, were each holding open, partially consumed bottles of Heineken beer as they sat in the vehicle. Officer Meech asked Jackson whether he had a valid driver’s license. Jackson responded that he did not.
Officer Meech testified at the suppression hearing that once he saw Jackson sitting in the SUV, he realized that neither Jackson nor the vehicle had any connection with the incident that precipitated the BOLO alert. The vehicle was a dark blue and yellow GMC Yukon, an SUV very similar in style and design to the Chevy Tahoe.1 Officer Meech nonetheless removed Jackson from the vehicle and placed him under arrest for having an open container of an alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle. He then conducted a background check on both Jackson and Gay. APD dispatch reported that Jackson not only had a suspended license, but also an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Gay, too, had a suspended license.
Officer Meech determined that in accordance with APD’s Vehicle Impoundment and Inventory Procedure Policy (“the APD Policy”), the Yukon would have to be towed from the scene because it was illegally parked in the driveway of a residence with no discernible connection to either Jackson or Gay,and neither Jackson nor Gay could drive it to another location in light of their consumption of alcohol and suspended licenses.
Before releasing the vehicle to the towing company, Officer Meech performed an on-site inventory search of the interior and exterior of the Yukon, pursuant to the APD Policy. Inside the vehicle was a six-pack of Heineken beer with two opened bottles. While checking under the driver’s seat, Officer Meech noticed that “part of the carpet on the floor board had been ripped up and just appeared to be like loose as if someone could have put something underneath there. I went to lift it up and noticed there was [a] loaded .380 Cobra handgun on the floor of the car.” He further explained:
Where the emergency brake pedal is and the brake pedal, the carpet that goes underneath that, you know how they kind of fold it over, and I mean it looks like it’s supposed to look. That was tor[n] up and the carpet was like pushed up against it so the extra carpet was just up against the-under the dash there. It was obvious it had been tor[n] up.
Officer Meech testified that there were no nails or fasteners to remove from this area, and in the process of lifting the carpet, he did not damage it in any way. He “simply checked under [the carpet]” by lifting the loose flap and discovered the loaded firearm. When asked about the gun, Jackson claimed that he did not know it was in the vehicle, stating that he had just purchased the car a couple of weeks ago. Officer Meech informed Jackson that the firearm would be tested for fingerprints and asked him if his fingerprints would be found on it, to which Jackson replied, “they might be.” After Jackson’s arrest, Officer Meech issued him a traffic citation for driving with a suspended license and failure to use a turn signal.3 The vehicle was then towed and impounded. [ii]
Jackson was indicted on a federal firearms violation, and he filed a motion to suppress. The district court denied his motion and he entered a guilty plea with a right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. He filed a timely appeal with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Issue One: Was the initial stop of Jackson reasonable under the Fourth Amendment?
Jackson argued that the BOLO did not provide sufficient reasonable suspicion for his stop because there was no evidence presented in court that established that it came from a reliable source. However, the court noted that, even if this were true, there was an independent reason for the traffic stop, particularly the traffic violation of failing to signal a turn. The Sixth Circuit stated:
Because probable cause existed for the traffic stop, the district court correctly held that the officers’ subjective or pretextual motivation for making the stop was not relevant under Whren[.]”); United States v. Miller, 413 F. App’x 841, 843 (6th Cir. 2011) [iii]
Thus, the traffic stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment based upon the traffic violation that was observed by the officer.
Issue Two: Was it reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the officer to continue to detain Jackson after he realized that he was not the subject of the BOLO?
Jackson argued that once the officer realized that he did not meet the description contained in the BOLO, the officer should have ended the stop and released him. However, the Sixth Circuit noted that, upon walking up to the vehicle, the officer immediately observed another offense, particularly the open contain of alcohol. This provided the officer with a valid basis to continue the stop.
Issue Three: Was the vehicle properly impounded according to the police department’s policy since it was stopped on private property (in a driveway of a residence)?
Jackson argued that the officers did not have to impound his vehicle because, based on Akron city ordinance, they were allowed to leave his vehicle on private property with the permission of the property owner. As such, he asserted that it was improper for the officer to impound his vehicle without first contacting the property owner and asking whether the vehicle could remain on the premises.
As to this issue, the Sixth Circuit first noted that since the driver was being arrested and the passenger had a suspended license, it was not an option to allow either to drive the vehicle from the scene. Second, the court noted that Jackson cited no case law, and the court is aware of no case law, that requires the police to contact another person on behalf of an arrested driver and ask if they will take possession of the arrestee’s vehicle. The court cited the Sixth Circuit case of the United States v. Pryor [iv], in which they previously held that:
the impoundment of the defendant’s vehicle was valid under standard police procedure where the car was parked on private property at an apartment complex, the defendant did not live there, he could not obtain permission from the property owner because the manager’s office was closed, and he could not turn the keys over to his wife because she did not appear on the scene until after the police had concluded the inventory search. [v]
Third, the Sixth Circuit noted that it is permissible for officers to exercise some discretion in deciding to impound a vehicle as long as that discretion is based upon standard criteria and as long as the discretion is not simply based on a premise of obtaining evidence of criminal activity. [vi]
The court then concluded that the police properly towed Jackson’s vehicle because there was nobody on-scene that could drive the vehicle, and he and his passenger had no apparent connection to the home where they stopped. Further, the officers were not required by law to contact the homeowner to determine if it was permissible for Jackson to leave the vehicle at that location. It was noted by the court that Jackson did not tell the officers that he had permission to park at that driveway or state that he knew the residents of that location.
Issue Four: Did the officer exceed the permissible scope of the inventory search when he looked under the apparently ripped carpet such that the search violated the Fourth Amendment?
Jackson argued that just because his vehicle appeared to have worn carpeting did not give the officer justification to search under that carpeting during the inventory search.
Noting rules regarding inventory searches, the Sixth Circuit stated:
It is settled law that the police may conduct an inventory search of an automobile that is being impounded without running afoul of the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Smith, 510 F.3d 641, 650 (6th Cir. 2007). “In order to be deemed valid, an inventory search may not be undertaken for purposes of investigation, and it must be conducted according to standard police procedures.” Id. at 651 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A general written inventory policy does not grant officers carte blanche when conducting a search; rather, it must be sufficiently tailored to only produce an inventory. Tackett, 486 F.3d at 232. Thus, “[i]n conducting an inventory search, officers do not enjoy their accustomed discretion; they simply follow the applicable policy.” Id. “Nonetheless, officers may exercise some judgment based on concerns related to the purposes of an inventory search; for example, they may decide to open particular containers if they cannot determine the contents.” Id. [vii]
The court then examined the Akron Police Department inventory policy and compared it to the search conducted in Jackson’s case. The court held that the officer followed policy when he looked under the already ripped up piece of carpet. The court noted that had the officer ripped up the carpet it would likely not have been permissible under the policy. However, in this case, the officer “simply lifted an already loose flap of carpet that appeared to have been tampered with…” [viii]
As such, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 11-3688, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 12344 (6th Cir. 2012)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 9 (citing Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996))
[iv] United States v. Pryor, 174 F. App’x 317, 320 (6th Cir. 2006)
[v] Id. at 13
[vi] Id. (citing Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987)
[vii] Id. at 15-16
[viii] Id. at 17