Iowa Appeals Court Doubles Down On Curbing Police Abuse Of 'Inventory Search' Warrant Exceptions
from the told-you-twice dept
As we’re well aware, the minute you get behind the wheel of your vehicle, your Fourth Amendment protections take a nosedive. Having a vehicle on a public street makes everything viewed through the windows a perfectly acceptable warrantless search. Add to that the number of traffic violations — real or imagined — that can act as a pretense for an investigative stop, and driving becomes a warrantless search waiting to happen.
While the Supreme Court did scale back some extracurricular law enforcement exploration with its Rodriguez decision, all it takes is an unconfirmable “smells like marijuana” or some other indicator of suspicion (talking too much, talking too little, making eye contact, not making eye contact, interstate travel, etc.) to turn a stop that shouldn’t have been prolonged past the point of issuing a ticket into a full-fledged search of a vehicle.
Then there’s this wrinkle. If you’re arrested or otherwise told to leave your vehicle, law enforcement is allowed to take the vehicle into custody (so to speak). At some point, the officer having the vehicle moved performs an inventory of the vehicle’s contents. This is to make sure that when the vehicle is returned to the driver, there’s no dispute as to whether or not your Creedence tapes and “business papers” went missing while in the hands of law enforcement.
What it’s not supposed to be is a warrantless search. But because law enforcement is required to perform inventories of everything of value in the car, it often becomes one. And once something is inevitably discovered through the course of an inventory, it becomes very difficult to have the evidence thrown out. After all, law enforcement is doing what it’s supposed to do. Too bad the seized vehicle had so much contraband in it.
What can happen, however, is courts finding the inventory-taking process to be pretextual in and of itself. If there was no reason to impound the vehicle — or officers appeared to be clearly motivated by something other than providing a list of contained items, the “inventory exception” can be overcome. FourthAmendment.com compiles two recent judicial unicorns into one handy post. Both come from the same state appeals court (Iowa), which may suggest a history of law enforcement abuse of this exception is finally being addressed.
In the first case [PDF], the defendant was approached by a police officer who said he was going to ticket him for improper parking. Since the defendant was unable to produce proof of insurance, this escalated to the officer impounding the vehicle. The defendant refused to consent to a search of the vehicle. The officer said he was just going to inventory the car and proceeded to do so. A gun and bullets were found during the inventory. The defendant challenged the evidence as a Fourth Amendment violation.
The court agreed with the defendant’s argument — seizing on the same legal technicality. Under state law, if a vehicle is to be seized for lack of insurance, the officer must first remove the license plates and registration before having the vehicle moved. This officer never took that step. As the court sees it, not following this step indicates the inventory search was pretextual. It was just a thinly-disguised investigative — and warrantless — search.
A plain reading of the statute requires the citation for failure to produce proof of insurance be issued and license plates and registration receipt be removed before the vehicle is impounded. It is unclear from our record as to whether or not Officer Carter issued Juarez-Martinez a citation for failure to provide proof of insurance before impounding the car. In any event, it is clear that Officer Carter failed to remove the license plates and registration receipt before impounding the car. Because the officer overlooked the legislatively imposed requirements for the impoundment, it appears he was motivated solely by an investigatory purpose. See Huisman, 544 N.W.2d at 439. We therefore conclude the impoundment was invalid and, accordingly, the inventory search was invalid.
The other case [PDF] is a little more complex, but it again rests on the actions taken by officers that appear to conflict with their stated motivations. A vehicle which police suspected contained stolen power tools was searched without a warrant. At one point, the suspect’s son arrived and offered to move the vehicle (rather than have it impounded) but was denied permission to do so.
Law enforcement officers searched the vehicle and found methamphetamines in a sunglasses case. At that point the search stopped. While officers did have a warrant to search the premises, they did not have one for the vehicle that arrived on the premises after the search had already commenced.
The motion to suppress is granted by the court, mainly because the officers involved couldn’t come up with a consistent narrative.
After Deputy Davis left the scene with Baudler, Officer Halverson and Assistant Chief Miller searched the truck. The officers found a glass pipe and methamphetamine inside a sunglasses case, and the search was stopped. The officers offered differing reasons for the search. Deputy Davis testified when he left the property it was his intention that the truck would be impounded.
In contrast, in his incident report Officer Halverson stated they “were requested by Deputy Davis to search the vehicle because he stated the plates did not come back to the proper truck.” At the hearing on the motion to suppress, Officer Halverson testified he searched the vehicle because Deputy Davis requested the officers to do so. He stated after they discovered the methamphetamine they contacted Deputy Davis and informed him of what they had found, and the search was stopped. Officer Halverson testified it was his understanding the truck was going to be impounded.
Halverson agrees with Davis on the “impoundment” part but not so much as to whether or not Davis told them to search the truck. Davis didn’t say he gave that instruction to the officers on the scene. The other party (Asst. Chief Miller) involved in the search had yet another version of the events.
Deputy Davis told me he needed [the truck] searched incident to arrest. At that point the truck was locked and I told [Baudler’s son] that we needed to look through the vehicle before he took it. . . . After [Deputy Davis] told us—asked us to search the vehicle incident to arrest, [Baudler’s son] unlocked it for me. I stood in the door, kind of looked in the vehicle and I called Officer Halverson over to assist me with the search. Almost within seconds he found some methamphetamine and a pipe . . . . At that point I told Officer Halverson that I saw numerous tools, Milwaukee tools, plus like a collection of vehicle titles. I told him about that. Then I went back to my car, called Deputy Davis and told him we found what we believed was methamphetamine. He said we were going to impound the vehicle, so we stopped the search.
First off, the suspicion the officers had that the tools they saw were stolen came from almost nowhere. The warrant they had made no mention of stolen tools and the CI tip cited in the affidavit mentioned stolen things going to a scrapyard, which would suggest a completely different kind of stolen good. As the court points out, probable cause is a pretty low bar and yet the officers were unable to surmount it. That eliminates the good faith exception and nothing about the search of the premises suggested there was anything approaching “exigent” in the circumstances.
So, the state tried to use the vehicle inventory exception. There’s nothing in that for these officers either. The controlling law enforcement agency had never bothered to write up procedures for inventory searches. All they had were verbal “guidelines” that were followed inconsistently by deputies.
Officer Halverson testified the Winterset Police Department also has an unwritten inventory policy. Officer Halverson stated the inventory policy is that:
“[a]nytime we arrest someone and they have a vehicle there, we impound the vehicle. We do a complete inventory of the interior contents of the vehicle and the condition of the exterior of the vehicle and then it is—we stay with it until a tow company comes and then we follow it to the police department where it gets held.”
However, on cross-examination, Officer Halverson admitted he has arrested individuals who are driving and let the passenger take the vehicle home, has allowed people to keep their vehicles in their driveway after being arrested, and has allowed a vehicle to remain at a friend’s house after an arrest with the consent of the homeowner.
By not implementing a policy covering every step of the inventory/impoundment process, neither of the two involved agencies can claim the search was merely an inventory of a to-be-seized vehicle. And the lack of set rules is a big constitutional problem, as the court points out.
[H]ere, the vague inventory “policies” related by Deputy Davis and Officer Halverson grant officers unlimited discretion to arbitrarily conduct searches. Basically, the officers could choose to impound any vehicle seized.
This lack of clear policies could be used as a Get Out of Suppression Hearings FREE card. Could be. The court here won’t allow it.
We conclude the conflicting testimony of the officers, as well as the timeline of events surrounding the search of the truck, indicate the officers searched the truck for the sole purpose of investigating for suspected criminal activity beyond the scope of the search warrant. Thus, we find the inventory exception does not apply to overcome the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement due to the vague impound policies and improper motive.
Also working against the state: the fact that the search stopped when contraband was found, rather than continued until the contents were fully-inventoried and the fact that there was no probable cause to seize the vehicle and remove it from the property. A vehicle parked on private property isn’t going to create a danger for other drivers or impede traffic, so there’s no justification for its seizure without the further development of probable cause. Probable cause didn’t exist until after the questionable “inventory search,” and by then, it was far too late.