Inventory search of vehicle can occur before car is towed


Captain Sterling Beckham and Deputy James McMahan of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department went to James O’Connell’s residence to serve a warrant for his arrest. Upon their arrival, the deputies knocked on the door but received no response from within the house. As the deputies proceeded to depart the premises, they noticed O’Connell driving past his home in a blue Chevrolet truck.

After stopping the vehicle, McMahan served O’Connell with the arrest warrant and placed him under arrest. As O’Connell was the only occupant of the car, McMahan called for a tow truck to come and tow the vehicle. While waiting for the tow truck to arrive, McMahan performed a vehicle inventory and discovered a small amount of marihuana in the glove compartment of the truck and three pounds of marihuana concealed in a Ford automotive part box in the bed of the truck.

O’Connell was given his Miranda rights and then told the deputies that the marihuana was his and had been given to him by a friend who owed him $10,000.

O’Connell was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and sentenced to 60 years as a habitual offender. On appeal, he argued the inventory search was improper. MCOA affirmed.


McMahan testified that he opened the box containing the marihuana because it is standard procedure to conduct an inventory search in situations where the arrestee’s vehicle is being towed. He also testified that in conducting such searches, it is standard procedure to open containers which may contain items of value, as the purpose of conducting the inventory search is to protect the owner’s property and to protect law enforcement officers from subsequent claims of theft or damage.

According to O’Connell, the search in his case was illegal because the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department did not have appropriate written policies in place regarding inventory searches. Specifically, O’Connell contends that the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department lacked standardized written policies regulating officer discretion in conducting inventory searches.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has extensively addressed the validity of inventory searches. In Lage, they said that there is an exception to the warrant requirement when a law enforcement officer conducts an inventory of seized property if that inventory is part of a bona fide police routine administrative caretaking function.

Under these circumstances, the Fourth Amendment requires only that an inventory not be a ruse for general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence. Thus, an inventory search of a seized vehicle is reasonable and not violative of the Fourth Amendment if it is conducted pursuant to standardized regulations and procedures that are consistent with (1) protecting the property of the vehicle’s owner, (2) protecting the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, and (3) protecting the police from danger.

In Robinson v. State, 418 So. 2d 749 (Miss. 1982), MSC concluded that, even if an inventory is characterized as a search, the intrusion is constitutionally permissible.

In Como, the 5th said that an inventory search is valid, provided it is conducted under an established police department inventory policy. They also said that police may lawfully conduct such searches while the vehicle is still on the highway awaiting towing. Finally, they said there is no requirement that the prosecution submit evidence of written procedures for inventory searches; testimony regarding reliance on standardized procedures is sufficient.

We find that the inventory search of O’Connell’s vehicle did not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution or the provisions of Article 3, Section 23 of the Mississippi Constitution. McMahan testified that it is the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department’s standard procedure to inventory the contents of a vehicle that is about to be impounded. According to McMahan, this policy is used as a means of safeguarding the vehicle and its contents and to protect law enforcement officers from subsequent claims of theft or damage.

That was the sole reason why McMahan performed the inventory search of O’Connell’s vehicle while waiting for the tow truck to arrive. The record is void of any evidence of bad faith on the part of McMahan in conducting the search or of any evidence that the search was a ruse for rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence. Thus, we affirm O’Connell’s conviction and sentence.