©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
In 1976, the United States Supreme Court decided South Dakota v. Opperman [i] and held that police officers may conduct inventory searches of lawfully impounded vehicles for the purposes of (1) protecting the owners property, (2) protecting the police from claims of lost or stolen property and (3) protecting the police from dangerous objects, as long as the inventory is conducted pursuant to standardized police policy regarding circumstances and scope of such search. The importance of having a standard police impound policy was illustrated in the Georgia Court of Appeals case of Capellan v. State [ii] which was decided on June 28, 2012.
The facts of Capellan, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
[A]n officer patrolling on Interstate 85 noticed a flatbed wrecker carrying a van run onto the shoulder of the road “across the fog line approximately three times.” The officer also noticed that the wrecker’s New Jersey license plate was illegible because of “grease or dirt or some kind of black smudges all over the tag.”
The officer stopped the wrecker and asked the driver, Capellan, for his driver’s license. When Capellan stated that he did not have his driver’s license, the officer asked him for his name and date of birth. Capellan told the officer “that he was 26 years old and born in 1974,” and that his name was “Sammy Ba[d]away.” The officer testified that he asked Capellan “a couple of more times” about his date of birth and age, because the “math didn’t add up,” and that Capellan “kept sticking to that he was 26 years old and born in 1974.” When the officer called police dispatch to inquire about Capellan’s license, the name and date of birth given by Capellan came back as “not on file.” Capellan then told a second officer on the scene that his driver’s license was behind the seat of his wrecker and that it might be suspended. Capellan was then arrested for giving a false name and date of birth.
When the first officer went into the cabin of the wrecker to look for Capellan’s license, he smelled “a fairly strong odor of raw or green marijuana.” This officer testified that he was trained in marijuana recognition. The officer did not “locate any marijuana,” but did locate a valid Florida driver’s license and a suspended New Jersey driver’s license, showing Capellan’s real name and date of birth.
The officer testified and the video recording reveals that after Capellan was secured in the back of the police vehicle, he began “inventorying” the wrecker and the van. The officer retrieved the keyless entry for the van from the key ring in the ignition of the wrecker, unlocked it, and opened the cargo area of the van. In the back of the van, the officer found two large duffel bags containing clear plastic bags of “a green leafy substance [the officer] suspected to be marijuana.” A police department evidence technician who qualified at the bench trial as an expert in the analysis of narcotics, determined that the duffel bags found in the van contained approximately 29 pounds of marijuana. [iii]
Capellan filed a motion to suppress the evidence and the trial court denied the motion. He then appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
In order to determine whether or not the denial of the motion to suppress was proper, the court had to decide two issues. The first is was whether the impoundment of Capellan’s vehicle was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The second issue was whether the inventory search of Capellan’s vehicle and the van were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Thus, the court first set out to determine whether the impoundment of Capellan’s vehicle was reasonably necessary. The court noted that the facts that supported the reasonableness of the vehicle impound were (1) Capellan was the only occupant of the vehicle (no other driver present), (2) the vehicle required a CDL, (3) the vehicle was stopped along the side of a highway exit ramp, and (4) the driver was arrested. Based on these facts, the court held that it was reasonable for the officer to impound Capellan’s vehicle.
The next issue before the court was whether the inventory search of the vehicle was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court stated:
“[I]nventories conducted by the police pursuant to standard police procedures are deemed to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” (Citation, punctuation and footnote omitted.) Id.; see also Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 374 n.6 (107 SC 738, 93 LE2d 739) (1987). In Clay v. State, 290 Ga. 822 (725 SE2d 260) (2012), the Georgia Supreme Court noted “that the inventory of containers must be in accordance with established inventory procedures.” [iv]
The court also stated that inventory searches cannot be used as a ruse for a general evidentiary search, but rather police department policy should be in place to govern the scope of such searches and to ensure that the purpose of the search is to produce an inventory of items in the vehicle being impounded.
In this case, Capellan argued that the searches of the locked van and the bags inside the van were not proper because there was no evidence that these searches were conducted in accordance with the officer’s department policy. In court, the officers testified that the searches of the wrecker, van and its contents were “inventory searches pursuant to impoundment.” [v] However, there was no evidence that the officers were following department policy when they conducted the inventory search pursuant to impound. As such, the court stated:
Without evidence of such policy it is difficult, if not impossible, to conclude that the inventory was conducted pursuant to such policy and not simply a “rummaging” to discover incriminating evidence. The inventory search here was therefore unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. [vi]
Thus, the evidence obtained during the inventory search should have been suppressed.
In light of this case, officers, especially those in Georgia, should document in their incident report (1) the reasons that they deemed it necessary to impound a vehicle and (2) that they inventoried the vehicle and its contents pursuant to their department vehicle inventory policy. In court, officers should provide testimony as to the department vehicle inventory policy so that it is in the record.
If a police department does not have a vehicle inventory policy, they are encouraged to enact such a policy.
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] 428 U.S. 364 (1976)
[ii] A12A0106, 2012 Ga. App. LEXIS 588
[iii] Id. at 1-4
[iv] Id. at 7-8
[v] Id. at 8
[vi] Id. at 8-9