When police officers arrest an individual, they are entitled to search the individual to inventory his property. Likewise, when the police take custody of a motor vehicle, officers may search the vehicle to inventory the items found therein. Inventory searches are justified by the government’s interest in: (1) identifying the suspect; (2) recovering weapons or other objects the suspect might use to harm himself or others (or to try to escape from custody); (3) protecting the suspect’s property while he is in custody; and (4) protecting the police from untrue allegations that they have stolen the suspect’s property.
Inventory Searches of People
A valid inventory search of an individual occurs when:
A person must be lawfully under arrest. Therefore, if an arrest violated the individual’s state or federal constitutional rights, the subsequent inventory search is unlawful and the items recovered during the search will not be admissible against the defendant in court. Further, the individual must be about to go to jail. Therefore, if a suspect is detained for an arrestable offense but the police make a discretionary decision to release him and summons him to court on a later date, the police may not conduct an inventory search of his body and clothes before they release him.
The search must be conducted pursuant a written, standard police policy. Inventory searches are not premised on the existence of probable cause. Therefore, in order to avoid arbitrary searches, the police must abide by a written policy in conducting inventory searches and the policy must be administered in the same manner in every case.
The scope of the search must be reasonable. The police can generally search the suspect’s pockets and clothes. In order to search closed containers in Massachusetts, the police must have a written policy that specifically allows for the inventory of the contents of closed containers.
A suspect cannot be strip searched pursuant to an inventory search policy.
Inventory Searches of Vehicles
An inventory search of a vehicle is justified for the same reasons as an inventory search of an individual. An inventory search of a vehicle cannot be a pretext for an investigative search and, as with the search of an individual, the inventory search of a motor vehicle must be reasonable under all of the circumstances of the case.
An abandoned vehicle can generally be taken into police custody if it has been sitting in a public place for more than 72 hours. If the car is parked in an area that creates a public safety risk, the police will be justified in removing the vehicle immediately (which will allow for the immediate inventory search pursuant to a written policy).
In a case where the driver is arrested, the police can tow the vehicle (and conduct an inventory search) if it is parked in a location where theft or vandalism seems likely. However, if the vehicle is stopped where it would have been parked anyway (such as a garage, a house, or a workplace), the police ordinarily cannot tow and search it.
All police departments have written policies that govern the inventory searches of people and vehicles. However, officers do not always abide by the policies, which can create suppression issues in court.