Vehicle Inventory Searches And Assuming Control Of Property: A Look At When Vehicle Inventory Searches Are Not Valid

Ahhh…Policy and procedure manuals, the true back bone of any government agency or private business.  No one wants to read them, but they come in handy when you find yourself in a situation and have no clue what to do or how to act.  After all, that is what they are there for, beyond collecting dust on a bookshelf.  And it was a policy and procedure manual that saved day for Zeigler in State v. Zeigler, 2016-Ohio-8370.

In Zeigler, Zeigler was a passenger in a vehicle that failed to negotiate a curve and ran off the right side of the roadway striking a tree.  EMS, firefighters, a Knox County deputy sheriff and Trooper Winans of the Ohio State Highway Patrol all were called to the scene.  Trooper Winans was in charge of the accident investigation.  Prior to Trooper Winans’ arrival, the driver had been taken from the scene in preparation for transport to Columbus by helicopter.  Zeigler having suffered a minor leg injury was still at the scene on a stretcher.  The vehicle was disabled and a tow truck was called to the scene.

Prior to Trooper Winans decision to tow the vehicle, Zeigler asked a firefighter to retrieve his backpack from the vehicle.  The backpack was over the headrest of the passenger’s seat.  Trooper Winans determined the backpack would not be returned to Zeigler until an inventory search of the contents of the backpack was completed.  Among the items found in Zeigler’s backpack were a firearm, pills, and fireworks.

Zeigler’s girlfriend arrived at the scene and asked Trooper Winans if she could retrieve Zeigler’s sunglasses from the vehicle.  Trooper Winans located the sunglass case, searched it, and found some loose marijuana.  The backpack and sunglasses/case were given to Zeigler’s girlfriend.  The Vehicle Inventory/Custody Report listed the backpack but not the contents.  The form also did not list the items returned to Zeigler’s girlfriend.

Ziegler was indicted on two counts of Having Weapons While Under Disability, Illegal Manufacture of Fireworks, Improperly Handling a Firearm, Possession of Drugs, and Possession of Marijuana.

Zeigler filed a motion to suppress evidence used against him.  A suppression hearing was held, and the trial court granted Zeigler’s motion to suppress.  The state appealed raising the following error:

“The Trial Court Erred As A Matter Of Law When It Did Not Apply The Appropriate Test Or Correct Law To The Facts Of This Case.”

The appellate court broke down their decision by taking a look at “Search of Passenger’s Belongings” and “Inventory Search.”  I will address each one as the appellate court did in their decision.

Search of Passenger’s Belongings

In Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999), the U.S. Supremes stated that passengers, no less than driver, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property that they transport in cars, which travel public thoroughfares, are subjected to police stop and examination to enforce pervasive governmental controls as an everyday occurrence, and are exposed to traffic accidents that may render all their contents open to public scrutiny.

Further, police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.  Id.

The appellate court, however, noted that the state did not argue Trooper Winans’ had probable cause to search the driver’s car or that the trooper had a reason to believe contraband or evidence of criminal wrongdoing was hidden in the car.  The appellate court also noted that the state argued that the search of Zeigler’s backpack was justified as part of an inventory search of the vehicle.

Inventory Search

Inventory searches involve administrative procedures conducted by law enforcement officials and are intended to (1) protect an individual’s property while it is in police custody, (2) protect police against claims of lost, stolen or vandalized property, and (3) protect police from dangerous instrumentalities.  State v. Mesa, 1999-Ohio-253, citing South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364.  Because inventory searches are administrative caretaking functions unrelated to criminal investigations, the policies underlying the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, including the standard of probable cause, are not implicated.  Id.  Rather, the validity of an inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle is judged by the Fourth Amendment’s standard of reasonableness.  Id.

In State v. Hathman, 65 Ohio St.3d (1992), the Ohio Supremes analyzed and followed various U.S. Supreme Court decisions and held the following:

1)         To satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, an inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle must be conducted in good faith and in accordance with reasonable standardized procedure(s) or established routine.

2)        If, during a valid inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle, a law-enforcement official discovers a closed container, the container may only be opened as part of the inventory process if there is in existence a standardized policy or practice specifically governing the opening of such containers.

The Ohio Supremes went on to state that, “if, during a valid inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle, a law-enforcement official discovers a closed container, the container may only be opened as part of the inventory process if there is in existence a standardized policy or practice specifically governing the opening of such containersId. (Original emphasis).

In Zeigler’s case, the appellate court looked to the Ohio State Highway Patrol Policy Handbook, specifically section 200.10 Administrative Inventory.  Now, the appellate court cited various parts of the Administrative Inventory sections, but for our conversation, I will look at part of Seizure of Evidence or Contraband and Area of Inventory under section 200.10.

Seizure of Evidence or Contraband, in part, states the following:

“The Division’s policy is to inventory all vehicles or other property with which we become involved where the owner or agent of the owner is unable to assume control of the property.”

Area Inventory states the following:

“The following areas should be checked for Items of value:

Passenger compartment of a motor vehicle.  The passenger compartment is defined as any place the occupant can reach without exiting the vehicle.

Glove compartment (unlocked or locked, if the key is available).

Trunk area, to include any side panel compartment and under the spare tire (when the trunk key is available, unless exigent circumstances exist or probable cause exists to indicate items of value are present).

Engine compartment (visual observation of items of value).

Closed, locked, sealed, or taped containers.

Other, vehicles (trailers being towed, etc,  when the key is available).

Luggage carriers.”

Looking at Zeigler’s case, the appellate court found that the owner of the vehicle had been removed from the scene and transported to the hospital.  That the vehicle was not drivable and was required to be towed from the scene, and that Trooper Winans had assumed responsibility of the vehicle.  Based on those facts, the appellate court found that Trooper Winans could lawfully conduct an inventory search of the vehicle pursuant to the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s policy.  In addition, because the policy also contains standardized policy or practice specifically governing the opening of closed containers, Trooper Winans could lawfully open an item such as a backpack as part of the inventory process.

However, under Seizure of Evidence or Contraband, the appellate court noted that the inventory is to be conducted only “where the owner or agent of the owner is unable to assume control of the property.”

The appellate court found that Zeigler exerted control over the property when he asked to have it returned to him.  The backpack and its contents, minus the contraband, were released to Zeigler’s girlfriend and were not inventoried.  In fact, Trooper Winans testified, “I should have crossed that off the inventory” because “it wasn’t part of the vehicle.  It wasn’t going with the vehicle to the tow truck, to the towing company.”

With that, the appellate court held that Zeigler’s backpack did not need to be searched as part of the vehicle’s inventory because Zeigler was not in custody and was able to take control of the backpack.  The trooper had no reason to believe the backpack contained contraband or evidence of criminal activity.  The trooper had no reason to believe that the backpack needed to be searched for officer protection.

Talk about being saved by the policy and procedure handbook!!

http://www.daytonduilaw.com

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