One of the most frequent questions coming into the Public Agency Training Council’s website in the last week since the Arizona v. Gant case was decided has been how this case would impact an inventory search of a motor vehicle which was authorized by the United States Supreme Court in South Dakota v. Opperman. The short answer is that Arizona v. Gant has no impact on inventory searches since the Court was specifically addressing “search incident to arrest” and concluded the majority opinion by recognizing that law enforcement would be justified in searching vehicles of persons arrested if another exception to the warrant requirement applied.
Search Incident to Arrest
The purpose behind the “search incident to arrest” exception has always been two-fold. The first purpose was to protect the officer’s safety from the possibility that the arrestee would reach back into the vehicle to grab a weapon and the second was to prevent the arrestee from reaching into the vehicle and destroying any evidence or contraband. Through its case, the Court determined that the arrestee’s area of control was the passenger compartment of the vehicle. In Thornton v. United States , the Court held that where a suspect had recently exited his auto and was apprehended a short distance away, the officers would be justified in searching the passenger compartment incident to his arrest.
In Gant, the Court qualified the Thorntonrule by holding that in a case where it was “reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest,” the officer may search the vehicle incident to the arrest. Under this qualifier, the officer can search the passenger compartment even after the subject is secured, but it does require a “reasonable” belief to believe there is evidence in the vehicle related to the crime for which the arrest is taking place. Under Gant, the officer is also allowed to search the passenger compartment incident to arrest before the arrestee is secured and while the arrestee still has the opportunity to reach into the vehicle.
The Opperman case involved a vehicle which was towed for illegal parking. At the impound lot an officer unlocked the vehicle and conducted an inventory search of the vehicle using the department’s standard inventory form in accordance with department procedure. The officer found marijuana in the glove compartment of the automobile. When the owner came to the tow yard for his vehicle, he was arrested and charged with marijuana possession.
The United States Supreme Court upheld the inventory search of Opperman’s vehicle. In doing so, the Court held that the purpose of this particular exception was to:
- Protect the law enforcement officer and the agency from false claims of lost/ stolen property from the vehicle that was towed;
- Protect the person who owns the vehicle from having their property lost or stolen; and,
- Protect law enforcement from danger from items in the vehicle.
Approximately ten years later, the Court expanded the scope of an inventory search to include containers within the vehicle as long as the search of such containers would be authorized under the department inventory policy.
It is important to note that while such policies may allow for some discretion on the part of the officer, the discretion must be “exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of criminal activity.” Thus, inventory searches cannot be used as fishing expeditions for evidence of crime, but instead must be conducted in a consistent manner supported by a policy.
It is noted that in Gant, the arrestee had pulled the vehicle off the street and into a private driveway which may have impacted whether or not the officers were justified in towing the vehicle. It is also noted that there may be cases where a subject is arrested in a vehicle but the subject is not the driver or not the registered owner and the registered owner is also on the scene. There may also be cases where a person in the vehicle is capable of driving the vehicle and there is no reason related to the arrest to tow the vehicle. In these examples, the inventory exception may simply not apply.
Although the United States Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, some courts have indicated that there is also a burden on law enforcement to establish that it was reasonable and or necessary to tow the vehicle.
Bottom Line: The inventory exception is separate from incident to arrest and supported by a different set of reasons. Gant has no impact in inventory searches.