On November 24, 2020, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided the State v. Loechinger[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to inventory searches of vehicle. The facts of Loechinger, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
So viewed, the evidence presented at the hearing on Loechinger’s motion to suppress shows that on May 31, 2019, Officer Sheppard, an officer with the Dekalb County Police Department, was traveling south on Interstate 285 and “running tags” on the National Crime Information Center and the Georgia Crime Information Center databases when he discovered a vehicle registered to a driver with a suspended license. The officer noticed that the database’s photo of Loechinger, the car’s owner, matched the person driving the car. The officer then conducted a traffic stop. The officer asked Loechinger for his license, and Loechinger could only provide him with the Georgia Identification card issued to him after his driver’s license had been suspended.
The officer testified that he arrested Loechinger for driving with a suspended license, placed him in the patrol car, and asked him whether there was anyone who could come to retrieve the car. The officer testified “I believe that [Loechinger] may have said his wife, but I believe … she was like in Hampton, Georgia. Or I believe that’s where he lived, which was — I know it was far…. At least an hour.” The officer allowed Loechinger to call his wife. Loechinger told the officer that his wife could come retrieve the vehicle. The officer testified that it was department policy that he wait with the vehicle to be retrieved by another person, but that such policy only allowed him to wait for a “reasonable time.” He further testified that if Loechinger had identified someone who could retrieve the car more quickly, he would have waited with the car until it was retrieved.
Officer Sheppard told Loechinger that he was going to have to impound his car because he could not leave it on the side of Interstate 285. The officer then called for a tow truck and proceeded to do an inventory search of the vehicle. He explained that it was a department policy that “any time we impound a vehicle, we have to search the car [to] make sure there’s no valuables[, because] [t]he person may complain and say something was in the car at the time of [the] impound.” The officer testified that this policy required officers to inventory only valuable items found in a vehicle, such as money, jewelry or electronics. Those items would then be taken and placed in the property room for safekeeping. However, the policy did not require officers to inventory items they found to be not valuable, such as papers or kleenex. During the inventory search of Loechinger’s car, the officer discovered in the center console a large plastic bag filled with a substance that tested positive for methamphetamine. He did not find anything else valuable in the car.[ii]
Loechinger was indicted for trafficking methamphetamine and driving with a suspended license under Georgia law. He filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine and challenged the impoundment and inventory of his vehicle. The trial court granted the motion to suppress on the grounds that the officer did not document any valuables in the vehicle on the inventory and only documented the contraband, as well as finding that it was not “reasonably necessary” to impound the vehicle. The State appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
The court of appeals first examined the law related to vehicle impounds and inventory searches.
The court discussed when the decision to impound a vehicle reasonable and stated
An officer’s decision to impound a vehicle is “valid only if there is some necessity for the police to take charge of the property, and police may not use an impoundment or inventory as a medium to search for contraband.” (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Stroud, 344 Ga. App. at 832 (3). See also Fortson v. State, 262 Ga. 3, 4 (1) (412 SE2d 833) (1992) (holding that police must have a valid justification for impounding a vehicle and they may not use the inventory search as a pretext for an investigatory search).
[T]he ultimate test for the validity of the police’s conduct is whether, under the circumstances then confronting the police, their conduct was reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The test is whether the impoundment was reasonably necessary under the circumstances, not whether it was absolutely necessary.
(Citation omitted.) Bowler v. State, 355 Ga. App. 77, 81 (3) (c) (842 SE2d 546) (2020). “[W]here the impoundment is unreasonable, then the resulting inventory search is invalid.” (Punctuation omitted.) State v. King, 237 Ga. App. 729, 729 (1) (516 SE2d 580) (1999).[iii]
The court of appeals noted that the decision to impound a vehicle has been held reasonable in situations such as when the driver is arrested and there is no other licensed driver available to drive the vehicle[iv] and situations where a driver and passenger are arrested, nobody is available to drive the vehicle, and the private property owner where the vehicle was located does not want the car to remain on the property.[v]
The court also discussed the law related to whether an inventory search is lawful. The court stated
Police officers may conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment
[W]here the police have impounded the vehicle and, as part of the impoundment process, they take an inventory of the car’s contents. Under the impound-inventory exception, where officers have a reasonable basis for impounding the car, the Fourth Amendment allows 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 the lost or stolen property. Thus, justification for an inventory search is premised upon the validity of the impoundment of the vehicle.
The court of appeals then addressed the first issue in this case, particularly whether the impoundment of Loechinger’s car was “reasonably necessary.” The trial court discredited the officer’s testimony because he did not characterize the car at the motion to suppress as “inoperable,” “obstructing the roadway,” or “making the roadway less safe.”[vii]
However, the court noted that the video footage of the incident showed that Loechinger’s car was stopped on a narrow shoulder of the interstate, close to an exit, in what appeared to be heavy, rush-hour traffic. The court of appeals stated
It is well established that a police seizure and inventory is not dependent for its validity upon the absolute necessity for the police to take charge of property to preserve it. They are permitted to take charge of property under broader circumstances than that.” (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Pierce v. State, 194 Ga. App. 481, 481 (1) (391 SE2d 3) (1990). Further, “[t]he argument that an automobile must be an impediment to traffic before it can be lawfully impounded has been rejected.” (Citation omitted.) Id. at 481 (1)[viii]
The court of appeals, in light of the above rules, and the video that showed the location of the vehicle, then held that the officer’s decision to impound the vehicle “was reasonably necessary under the circumstances.”[ix]
The court of appeals then set out to examine the second issue, particularly, whether the officer conducted the inventory search according to police procedures. The court stated
[S]ubsequent to a reasonable impoundment, the contents of an impounded vehicle are routinely inventoried  to protect the property of the owner,  protect the officers against claims for lost or stolen property, and  protect the police from potential danger… . [I]nventories conducted by the police pursuant to standard police procedures are deemed to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. (Footnote omitted.) Davis v. State, 331 Ga. App. 171, 174 (769 SE2d 183) (2015).[x]
The trial court found that, since the officer did not document any of the vehicle contents other than the contraband, the inventory was not lawful. The officer testified that he did not find anything of value in the vehicle during the inventory search that required documentation. As such, the court held that the inventory search was conducted in good faith according to the police department’s inventory search policy.
The court then held that the trial court erred in granting the motion to suppress since the impoundment of the vehicle was lawful and the inventory was conducted in good faith compliance with the police department’s inventory search policy.
[i] A20A1638 (Ga. App. November 24, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 5-6 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 7
[viii] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)
[x] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)