On September 11, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Moss[i], in which the court discussed the vehicle inventory exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Moss are as follows:
On August 6, 2015, at approximately two o’clock in the morning, Miami Gardens Police Department officers on patrol saw a 2002 silver Buick bearing temporary Florida paper license tag BLH9635 exit the parking lot of an Exxon gas station in Miami Gardens, Florida. The officers observed that neither Mr. Moss, who was driving the vehicle, nor the front seat passenger wore seatbelts. Additionally, a records check of the temporary tag revealed that the corresponding vehicle identification number (“VIN”) contained 18 characters—not 17 characters as required for vehicles manufactured after 1981. See 49 C.F.R. § 565.13(b). The MGPD officers then pulled Mr. Moss’ vehicle over.
During the traffic stop, Officer Jorge Casiano noticed a smell of alcohol coming from the vehicle and saw an open can of malt liquor in the rear passenger cup holder. Mr. Moss provided Officer Casiano with a temporary registration document, which matched the temporary license tag but also corresponded to the improper 18-digit VIN. When Officer Casiano input the registration information into a driver records database, it revealed three temporary tags registered to Mr. Moss. All three tags had been issued within 16 days of each other, corresponded to a vehicle matching the description of the Buick, and corresponded to nearly the exact same VIN (except the last characters), only one VIN of which had 17 characters. Officer Casiano knew that Florida law limited a person to obtaining two successive, back-to-back temporary tags per vehicle, each valid for 30 days.
Based on this information, Office Casiano determined that Mr. Moss had provided him with a counterfeit registration document, and decided to arrest him. He asked Mr. Moss and the two passengers to exit the car, which they did. Officer Casiano then observed that the VIN on the Buick’s dashboard contained 17 characters and did not match the 18-digit VIN corresponding to the temporary license tag and registration document.
Officer Casiano decided that, under the circumstances, he would have to tow and impound Mr. Moss’ vehicle, because it would not be reasonable for someone to retrieve it. The database search had revealed that neither of the two passengers had a valid driver’s license, and there was an outstanding warrant for one of them. And because the Buick did not have a validly registered tag in the first place, it would not have been legal for anyone to drive it. See Fla. Stat. § 320.0605.
MGPD policy requires that an inventory search be conducted of all towed or impounded vehicles. See post at 7 n.2. While Mr. Moss and the two passengers sat on the sidewalk, not handcuffed, Officer Casiano searched the Buick. He discovered nineteen baggies of powder cocaine, fourteen baggies of crack cocaine, and four baggies of a narcotic known as BZP, all recovered from underneath the ash tray in the center console. The search also revealed a loaded .380 caliber firearm beneath the narcotics, as well as a digital scale and $701 in cash elsewhere in the vehicle. Officer Casiano searched Mr. Moss’ person, and discovered five baggies of narcotics in Mr. Moss’ sock. Officer Casiano subsequently placed Mr. Moss under arrest.”[ii]
Moss filed a motion to suppress and argued that the inventory search of his vehicle was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion to suppress and held the search was valid as a vehicle inventory. Moss appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Eleventh Circuit first discussed the legal principles related to the vehicle inventory exception to the warrant requirement. The court stated
Inventory searches are “a well-defined exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.” Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 371 (1987) (citing South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 367-76 (1976)). “[R]easonable police regulations relating to inventory procedures administered in good faith satisfy the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at 374. “Nothing . . . prohibits the exercise of police discretion [regarding a decision to impound a vehicle] so long as that discretion is exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.” Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 3-4 (1990) (quoting Bertine, 479 U.S. at 375).[iii]
Additionally, the court stated
If a search is to be upheld under the inventory search doctrine, therefore, the police must  first have the authority to impound the vehicle and  must then follow the procedures outlined in the policy.” Id. at 12 (quoting Williams, 936 F.2d at 1248).[iv] [emphasis added]
The court of appeals then observed that MGPD does have an explicit written policy regarding conducting inventory searches of impounded vehicles. The court of appeals noted that this policy satisfies the requirements of the Supreme Court that inventories are to be conducted “according to standardized criteria.”[v]
Moss argued that the officer’s decision to impound his vehicle was not based upon standard criteria, thus the resulting inventory search must be held to violate the Fourth Amendment. However, the court noted that Moss could cite no court precedent to support his argument. Rather, the court stated
The principle girding the requirement for standard criteria for inventory searches is that the searches “must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” Wells, 495 U.S. at 4.[vi] [emphasis added]
The court then examined the facts of Moss’s case that are relevant to the officer’s decision to impound his vehicle. The court stated that (1) it was 2 a.m. and the car was on the side of a road, (2) the car did not have a valid tag and registration, (3) neither passenger had a valid driver’s license and one had a warrant, (4) the lack of valid tag and registration meant that it would be unlawful under Florida law for anyone to drive the vehicle, therefore, it was irrelevant that Moss’s mother could have been called to pick up the car. Therefore, based on the above reasons, the court of appeals stated it was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to impound Moss’s vehicle.
Moss also argued that the officer impounded the vehicle as a ruse to conduct a search of the car for evidence of a crime. Regarding this argument, the court stated
Mr. Moss’ personal assumptions that Officer Casiano was motivated by suspicions of criminal activity do not persuade us otherwise. Even so, “the mere expectation of uncovering evidence will not vitiate an otherwise valid inventory search.” United States v. Roberson, 897 F.2d 1092, 1096 (11th Cir. 1990).[vii] [emphasis added]
Therefore, since the impound of Moss’s vehicle was otherwise reasonable, for the reasons discussed above, and the inventory search was conducted pursuant to police department policy, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress because the impound and inventory search complied with the Fourth Amendment.
[i] No. 16-16214 (11th Cir. Decided September 11, 2018 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 5
[iv] Id. at 6
[v] Id. at 7
[vi] Id. at 8
[vii] Id. at 9