Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Second inventory search was legal under the Fourth Amendment

There are a zillion exceptions to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment. In this case, we become acquainted with the rule that police officers may search a vehicle without a warrant provided the search is part of a legitimate "inventory search." This case asks when the police may conduct multiple inventory searches.

The case is United States v. Williams, issued on July 9. Defendant was driving a rental car that was leased in someone else's name. The police pulled him over for reckless driving. When the police brought defendant back to the precinct, they immediately commenced an inventory search of the car. As a general rule, the police are allowed to do this without a warrant. The reasons for an inventory search are (1) "to protect the owner's property while it is in police custody; (2) to protect the police against spurious claims of lost or stolen property; and (3) to protect the police from potential danger." Since these searches do invade the motorist's privacy, the police must conduct inventory searches pursuant to established police procedures. If, in the course of a legitimate inventory search, the police find something illegal, that contraband can be used against the driver in court.

Once the inventory search ended, the police told defendant the car would be returned to the rental agency. This made defendant visibly nervous, and he demanded that the police allow him to make a phone call. Defendant got on the phone and told someone to quickly retrieve the car, and the police noticed his stress level was elevated and he sounded "more stressed." This prompted the police to search the car again. They found a gun hidden in the vehicle, which they retrieved after loosening the screws of a center console that is not normally designed to be opened.

Following his conviction for the illegal gun, defendant tells the Court of Appeals that the second inventory search was illegal and that only the initial inventory search complied with the Fourth Amendment. This is a tricky issue because the second search happened only because defendant got nervous when he realized the car would be returned to the rental place. The Court of Appeals (Livingston, Kearse and Carney) upholds the search. Not only was the second search conducted pursuant to NYPD procedures, but it does not matter that those procedures say nothing about conducting follow-up searches. The Court says these policies do not have to account for every possibility. What is more, the second search made sense because defendant's nervousness about the rental car returning to the agency led the police to think that something of value remained in the car, thereby implicating the very reasons why the police are allowed to undertake inventory searches in the first place. It does not look like the courts have ruled on whether a second inventory search is legal, but the Second Circuit breaks ground in this case on that issue.

The Court of Appeals does not really get into this, but my sense is they worried that someone else would rent the same car the next day and somehow find the gun in the console. While the console was screwed shut as a matter of course (the car was manufactured that way), who the hell knows what would happen if some kiddo with a screwdriver decided to open up the console and found the gun?

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