On February 6, 2014, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Armstrong v. State [i], which serves as an excellent review of the legal requirements of a lawful inventory search of a vehicle. The facts of Armstrong, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
A Gwinnett County police officer stopped the car driven by Armstrong because a computer check by the officer on the car’s license plate showed that the car’s registration had been cancelled. The officer made the stop when Armstrong turned the car into a gas station and parked in front of a gas pump. During the stop, Armstrong initially gave the officer a false name and a fake driver’s license. The sole passenger in the car also gave the officer false identification information. After determining Armstrong’s true name, additional computer checks conducted during the stop showed that Armstrong’s driver’s license was suspended, and that both Armstrong and the passenger had outstanding arrest warrants. The officer placed Armstrong and the passenger under arrest. After the gas station operator informed the officer that the car was blocking the gas pump and could not be left at the gas station, the officer made the decision to impound the car and tow it. Pursuant to police department procedures, the officer immediately conducted a warrantless inventory search of the impounded car. During the inventory search, the officer found a backpack in the rear passenger seat which contained various controlled substances which the State used as evidence to support the charges brought against Armstrong.[ii]
Armstrong filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during the inventory of his vehicle. The trial court denied the motion and he appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia. On appeal, he argued (1) that the inventory was unlawful because the inventory was not necessary and (2) that inventory was unlawful because it was a guise for a search.
Regarding the first issue, whether the inventory and impound was necessary, the court of appeals noted some relevant rules pertaining to inventory searches of vehicles. The rules are as follows:
After lawfully impounding a vehicle, it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for police to conduct a warrantless, non-investigatory search of the vehicle, pursuant to standard police procedures, to produce an inventory of the vehicle’s contents to protect the owner’s property, or to protect police from potential danger or claims for lost or stolen property. Stringer v. State, 285 Ga. App. 599, 601-603 (647 SE2d 310) (2007); Grizzle v. State, 310 Ga. App. 577, 579 (713 SE2d 701) (2011).[iii]
The test under the Fourth Amendment “is whether the impoundment was reasonably necessary under the circumstances, not whether it was absolutely necessary.” Grizzle, 310 Ga. App. at 579 (citation and punctuation omitted).[iv]
The court noted that, in Armstrong’s case, the vehicle was not properly registered and both the driver and passenger were being arrested. Further, the vehicle was stopped at a gas pump at a gas station. The court noted further that:
Contrary to Armstrong’s contention, the officer was not required under these circumstances to ask him what he wanted done with the car prior to impounding it. Scott v. State, 316 Ga. App. 341, 343-344 (729 SE2d 481) (2012).[v]
As such, the court held that it was reasonable for the officer to impound and inventory the vehicle, pursuant to department policy.
As to Armstrong’s second issue, whether the inventory search was an illegal guise for an otherwise unauthorized search, the court stated:
The Fourth Amendment does not permit police officers to disguise warrantless, investigative searches as inventory searches. However, [police are not required to demonstrate] an absence of expectation of finding criminal evidence as a prerequisite to a lawful inventory search. When officers, following standardized inventory procedures, seize, impound, and search a car in circumstances that suggest a probability of discovering criminal evidence, the officers will inevitably be motivated in part by criminal investigative objectives. Such motivation, however, cannot reasonably disqualify an inventory search that is performed under standardized procedures for legitimate custodial purposes. [vi]
The court then held that because the impound was lawful and because the inventory search was conducted pursuant to police department policy, it was not an illegal guise for a search, even though the officer may have expected to find contraband in the vehicle.
As such, the court 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] A13A2451 (Ga. App. 2014)