Are Inventory Searches Legal?
Nov. 4, 2022
You are pulled over for a DWI and shortly thereafter the police conduct a search of your car. According to the police, the search of your car was an inventory search. Is the search of your car legal?
Article I, Section 5 of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 prohibits "unreasonable searches, seizures, or invasions of privacy" by government officials. Under this provision, and a similar provision contained in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a search warrant is required as a general rule for a search to be constitutionally authorized. To this general rule, however, historical and practical exceptions have developed justifying warrantless searches under certain circumstances. The United States Supreme Court has explicitly held that when a car is impounded, "inventory searches" to preserve a car owner's property and protect the police against claims of lost or stolen property does not constitute an unreasonable search which offends the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 96 S.Ct. 3092, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000 (1976); see also Cady v. Dombroski, 413 U.S. 433, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706 (1973); Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, 88 S.Ct. 992, 19 L.Ed.2d 1067 (1968). The police can not use an inventory search as subterfuge to rummage through a person’s car.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted the United States Supreme Court's reasoning on the issue of inventory searches. State v. Hatfield, 364 So.2d 578 (La.1978); State v. Banks, 363 So.2d 491 (La.1978); State v. Doucet, 359 So.2d 1239 (La.1978); State v. Schmidt, 359 So.2d 133 (La.1978); State v. Gaut, 357 So.2d 513 (La.1978); State v. Rome, 354 So.2d 504 (La.1978); State v. Jewell, 338 So.2d 633 (La.1976). However, the State must show the search of your car is justified once it is shown the search was warrantless. State v. Franklin, 353 So.2d 1315 (La.1977).
In determining whether the police conducted a true inventory search, a court will look at the totality of the circumstances of the search. Factors a court will consider to determine whether a true inventory search has been conducted are: (1) the vehicle could not have remained safely at or near the place it was stopped; (2) the search was not conducted in the field; (3) the tow truck was called before the search commenced; (4) formal impoundment procedures were followed; (5) the vehicle operator was asked if he consented to a search, if the car contained valuables, or if he would consent to the agency's failure to afford him the protection of an inventory search; (6) arrangements were made for someone designated by the operator to take possession or protective custody of the vehicle for him. State v. Hardy, 384 So.2d 432 (La.1980); State v. Killcrease, 379 So.2d 737 (La.1980); State v. LaRue, 368 So.2d 1048 (La.1979).
If the police claim an inventory search of a car occurred, a lawyer will want to do a in depth review of these six factors as they pertain to your case, as well as any additional factors which might show a true inventory search did not occur. Thus, a lawyer will want to know if your car could be safely parked in the area of your arrest. If the car can be safely parked, is it parked in a high crime area? Your lawyer will also want to review the radio logs of the police to see if the tow truck was called before the search of your car. Did police follow their proper inventory procedure? Did the police fill out an inventory form? Did the police allow you to call someone to retrieve your car? Answers to these questions will allow you lawyer to provide a qualified opinion on whether the search of your car was legal.