Closed containers can be opened as part of an inventory search if your departmental regulations authorize this


While driving a tractor-trailer rig, Chester Edwards made a mandatory stop at a state-operated weigh station east of Meridian on the interstate highway. His truck was found to be in compliance with the applicable weight limit. As Edwards drove the truck off of the scales, he was told to park and walk into the office.

Two Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) officers testified that on a random basis they had decided to do an additional walk-around inspection of the vehicle. Both officers testified that once Edwards was inside the station office, he appeared to be under the influence of narcotics. They surmised this from his agitation, his trembling hands and the fact that he repeatedly licked his lips, indicating a dry mouth. One of the officers testified that the fact that Edwards was wearing sunglasses on an overcast, possibly rainy morning added to his suspicion.

The officers asked him if he was carrying any weapons and Edwards stated that he was not. One of the officers noticed a bulge in Edwards’s right-hand pants pocket. After brushing the bulge with his hand, that officer was of the opinion that it was a weapon. Edwards admitted that it was his pocket knife and that he had forgotten it. Edwards removed it from his pocket.

The other officer then asked Edwards to empty all of his pockets. Edwards refused. At that time, a pat down for weapons was conducted. The officer performing the pat down felt a small round object that he thought was methamphetamine. After another officer arrived to conduct a second pat down on Edwards, the object was removed from Edwards’s pocket. It was a plastic bag containing what appeared to be methamphetamine.

At this time Edwards was arrested. The officers then sought Edwards’s consent to search his truck. He refused to sign a consent form, but the officers testified that he gave them oral consent. Edwards informed them that he had a gun in the truck. In the process of stepping up on the running board to enter the truck, the officer retrieving the gun saw a marijuana joint in a cup on the console between the seats.

Later, the officers along with a Bureau of Narcotics agent who had arrived, searched the truck. More drugs and drug paraphernalia were found. The substance found on Edwards and in some parts of the truck was methamphetamine. In addition, a field sobriety test was conducted on Edwards. The test indicated that Edwards was under the influence.

The trial judge in a written order concluded that the search of Edwards’s person violated the Fourth Amendment. The court also found, though, that even if Edwards had not been searched, the walk around inspection of the truck still would have discovered the marijuana in a cup in plain view when an officer looked into the cab. He then would have been arrested for that offense as well as for being under the influence of drugs. This arrest would have led to the search of Edwards as an incident of arrest. Therefore the drugs inevitably would have been discovered.

Edwards was convicted of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute while possessing a firearm and sentenced to 15 years. On appeal, he argued the random stop and subsequent searches were illegal. MCOA affirmed.


A. Requiring stop at weigh station

Requiring vehicles to stop at this weigh station is a seizure for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Nonetheless, probable cause or even reasonable suspicion is not required in this situation.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 (1967), said there are three requirements under Camara to validate a particular law enforcement practice involving a stop and limited detention: (1) existence of a strong public interest in maximizing success in combating the problem at hand; (2) an inability to achieve adequate result by relying on probable cause determinations; and (3) the relatively limited invasion of the citizen’s privacy involved in the procedure in question.

Requiring truckers to stop at this weigh station was valid.

B. Random inspection

For the substantive answer to whether random selection for these inspections is proper, we return to the Camara factors. First, there is a strong public interest in assuring that the large commercial vehicles are meeting minimal safety standards.

Secondly, we find that if weigh station officials through their quick glance as a truck was being weighed must first acquire probable cause to believe that there are defects in basic safety items this would prevent acceptable results from being obtained.

Thirdly, this is a relatively limited invasion of privacy as it is not a full vehicle search. As part of the inspection, the officer steps up on a running board and opens the door to see the vehicle inspection number.

We find random stops to be fully justified here once all commercial trucks have been required to undertake the initial stop to be weighed.

C. Pat down for weapons

According to the trial judge’s written findings, the officer’s search of Edwards was unreasonable as it did not fall within the plain feel exception in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993).

In Dickerson, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a plain feel corollary to the plain view doctrine. When a police officer lawfully pats down a suspect’s outer clothing and feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity immediately apparent (probable cause), there has been no invasion of the suspect’s privacy beyond that already authorized by the officer’s search for weapons; if the object is contraband, its warrantless seizure would be justified.

The trial judge found that the two officers who testified did not have probable cause to believe just from touch that the object in Edwards’s pocket was methamphetamine.

D. Field Sobriety test

After removal of the suspected drugs from Edwards’s pocket, a field test was conducted on the substance. It was found to be methamphetamine. After that result, Edwards was given and failed a field sobriety test. The court made no specific finding as to whether Edwards would have been given a field sobriety test absent the discovery and identification of the drugs.

Nonetheless, there was significant testimony from the officers that Edwards’s physical appearance and mannerisms alone created the basis to give the field sobriety test. Since the trial court found that the suspicions that Edwards was under the influence would have justified his arrest, we find it implied that the officers’ suspicions were untainted by what the judge had just found was an improper discovery of drugs in Edwards’s pocket.

The field sobriety test indicated that he was under the influence of some substance and therefore impaired as a driver. Such tests may create probable cause to arrest for driving under the influence. There is no statutory prohibition on MDOT officers’ performing the test and we find no other grounds on which to prohibit it.

E. Discovery of marijuana cigarette in cab of truck

The trial also found that the improbable “plain feel” discovery of drugs in Edwards’s pocket was cured by the discovery in “plain view” of a marijuana cigarette between the front seats of Edwards’s truck. We have already found that the officers had the authority randomly to subject vehicles to a more intrusive inspection. Edwards had been selected for that inspection. By standing on the running board at the driver’s door, the officer testified he saw into the truck and discerned that a marijuana cigarette was in a tin cup. The trial judge specifically accepted that testimony.

Evidence found in plain view by officers who have a legal right to be in the position to view, if the object’s incriminating character is immediately apparent (probable cause), can be seized without a warrant. An officer had the right to step on the running board. The officer testified that he saw and was able to identify the marijuana joint when he stepped onto the running board and looked through the window.

Once the marijuana in the truck was discovered, Edwards would have been arrested for that offense. Then a search of his person and an inventory search of his vehicle would have followed. This means that even if the pat-down discovery and seizure of the drug from Edwards’s pocket was invalid, that same evidence would have been admissible under the doctrine of “inevitable discovery. Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 444 (1984).

F. Search of truck

A search of the truck revealed an additional 90 grams of methamphetamine. One officer found a 33-gram rock of methamphetamine inside a clear plastic bag in the outside compartment. Another 60 grams were inside a drink bottle covered in duct tape found inside the headache rack on the rear of the truck.

Once Edwards was arrested because of the marijuana, standard procedure was for the truck to be subjected to an inventory search before it was driven or towed to a secure location. An inventory search conducted pursuant to established procedures and policies does not offend the Fourth Amendment.

The problematic item of evidence was a plastic bottle sealed with duct tape. Most of the evidence was that the contents were not discernible until the container was opened. The United States Supreme Court in Florida v Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990), has permitted closed containers to be opened as part of an inventory search only if departmental regulations authorize it.

We did not uncover potentially applicable MDOT directives on opening closed containers during inventory searches. We therefore find that the evidence as to what was in the sealed bottle, which was 60 grams of methamphetamine, should not have been admitted under the inventory search exception.

Even without the contraband found in the bottle, the officers recovered approximately 39 grams of methamphetamine, at least twenty times the amount for personal use. In addition, there were scales found in the truck that were of the kind often used to weigh drugs. The evidence about the additional quantity was not a determining factor in the finding of intent to sell.