Inventory search of vehicle in accordance with departmental guidelines

Facts

In 1997, two officers from the Jackson Police Department were on patrol when they saw Steven Ray was speeding in excess of fifty miles per hour in a thirty mile per hour zone. They also testified that they observed Ray swerve off the right side of the road and back onto the road. After this observation, the officers decided to stop Ray.

As they approached the vehicle, Officer McGehee went to the driver’s side, and Officer Bryant went to the passenger’s side. Bryant testified that he noticed Ray “making a lot of furtive movements. He was reaching above the visor. He was reaching around beside him.” Bryant then notified his partner to “watch out because the driver was moving around more than what you normally see people do on a traffic stop.”

When McGehee asked Ray for his driver’s license, Ray told the officer it had been taken by a “cop.” At this time, Bryant looked into the car with his flashlight and saw a plastic vial lying on the passenger seat. Then McGehee ran a warrants check on Ray and found that he had an outstanding warrant for false pretense.

McGehee testified that he observed Ray at this time “reach up with his left hand as though he was either taking something from the window trim, the door area, where the window meets the ceiling, either putting something there or taking something down.”

McGehee returned to the car and asked Ray to step out. At this point, Bryant noticed a syringe under the visor on the driver’s side. The officers arrested Ray on the outstanding warrant and conducted a pat down. They found a small bag containing a yellowish powder substance in Ray’s cap. The officers then conducted an “inventory” search of the vehicle and found two .38 revolvers in the glove box, a pager, a police scanner, and a Coke bottle with a milky substance inside.

Ray was convicted of possession of methamphetamine and sentenced to six years. On appeal, he argued the stop and search of his car was illegal. MCOA affirmed.

Analysis

A. Stop of car

Pursuant to Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court has opined that the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have actual probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. Here, the officers testified that they observed Ray driving his vehicle in excess of the posted speed limit, an undisputed traffic violation. Therefore, the officers actually had more than the required reasonable suspicion. They had probable cause to support the stop.

B. The Search of Ray’s Vehicle

After the officers stopped Ray, they became aware that Ray had an outstanding warrant for a charge of false pretense. Once Ray was arrested, the officers began a search of his person and his vehicle.

Ray argues that once the officers became aware of the outstanding warrant, he was under arrest at that moment. He was removed from the vehicle and handcuffed “right at his door” and taken to the rear of the car. It was at that time that the officers began the search of the vehicle. Ray asserts that the search of the car was at most a search incident to arrest and that it exceeded the scope for such search. The State on the other hand contends that the search of the car was an inventory search.

The classification of the search is important because the permissible scope of a search incident to arrest is more limited than the scope of an inventory search.

In White, MSC said a search incident to arrest is founded on the principle that the subject may have a weapon on his person or within reach, or that he may attempt to destroy evidence which is within his grasp. In Cupp v. Murphy, 412 U.S. 291 (1973), MSC said the scope of a search incident to arrest must be limited to a reasonable area equal to that which is within the arrestee’s reach where he may have access to a weapon or may have attempted to destroy or discard evidence.

An inventory search is completely different. When an individual is arrested and there is no one readily available to take possession of the arrestee’s vehicle, the arresting officer will often have the car impounded. The courts have created the inventory exception for three basic reasons: (1) the protection of the arrestee’s property while in police custody, (2) the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property and (3) the protection of the police from potential danger. See U.S. Supreme Court case South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976).

To ensure that the inventory search remains within the scope necessary to carry out the care-taking function of protecting the arrestee’s vehicle, the officers must follow the standard departmental procedure set for inventory and impounding.

It is our view that the search of the interior of Ray’s car was a properly conducted inventory search. Because of the proximity of the search to the time of the arrest, it may appear that the search should be characterized as a search incident to arrest. However, the record is clear that the officers made a decision to arrest Ray and transport him to the police department.

There was no one readily available to remove the vehicle from the roadside. The officers then followed standard departmental procedure and impounded the vehicle. Prior to the impoundment, the officers conducted a proper inventory search to protect Ray’s property within the vehicle from the threat of loss or damage, as well as to protect themselves from potential danger. Therefore, we hold that the trial judge did not err in denying Ray’s motion to suppress evidence discovered as a result of the search.

Thoughts

In Ferrell v. State, 649 So. 2d 831 (Miss. 1995), and White, MSC said that search incident to arrest is not appropriate once subject is handcuffed and away from the vehicle. MSC has said the opposite in Townsend and Johnson. All of these cases were decided before Gant.

Gant, which came out in 2009, clarified that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/Conv10428.pdf