The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects individuals from random police searches. The United States Supreme Court has found that, implicit within the Fourth Amendment is a preference for a valid warrant before conducting a search. Specifically, the Supreme Court has stated that “searches conducted outside the judicial process . . . are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment – subject only to a few . . . exceptions.”1 Therefore, if a police officer conducts a search without a warrant, it must be pursuant to a well-established exception. One such exception is a vehicle inventory search. An inventory search can occur with impoundment of a motor vehicle. This exception as analyzed in this blog, however, is not always valid as the Court of Appeals pointed out in their recent decision of Smith v. State.2
In Smith, the Court of Appeals reversed a conviction for carrying a handgun without a license after the Court determined that the search did not meet the requirements for a valid inventory search. The relevant facts are as follows: The Defendant, Carl Smith, was pulled over after committing several traffic infractions. Once pulled over, the Officer asked Smith for his driver’s license. Smith then admitted that he did not have a driver’s license, and upon further inquiry by the Officer, it was determined that Smith’s license had been suspended. Smith was then placed in handcuffs, and the Officer began filling out paperwork to arrest Smith for driving with a suspended license. While the Officer was filling out the paperwork, two other officers arrived on the scene and conducted a search of Smith’s vehicle. Upon searching the vehicle, a handgun was found in the glove compartment of the car. At some point after the gun was found, an acquaintance of Smith, who had a valid driver’s license, arrived and was permitted to drive the car to Smith’s residence. Smith was charged with carrying a handgun without a license, as well as driving with a suspended license. At trial, Smith moved to suppress evidence of the handgun, arguing that the search was unconstitutional. The State argued that the search was constitutional pursuant to a valid inventory search. The trial court sided with the State and denied the motion to suppress. Smith was convicted of both counts.
On appeal, Smith argued that the search was unconstitutional, and as such, his motion to suppress should have been granted. The Court began their analysis by stating that the “question in determining the validity of an inventory search is proper impoundment, and impoundment is reasonable if authorized by statute or the police’s discretionary community-caretaking function.” Both parties agreed that the search was not conducted pursuant to any statutory authority, and therefore, the Court focused on whether the search was consistent with the police’s community-caretaking function. The Court concluded that the State failed to establish that the decision to impound Smith’s vehicle was routine department conduct. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that “while we do not require evidence of a department’s written procedure, we do require more than conclusory testimony from an officer.” As such, given the conclusory nature of the Officer’s testimony, without additional evidence, was insufficient to meet the inventory search exception. Therefore, the Court reversed Smith’s handgun conviction.
This area of law is extremely technical, while also having the potential to completely change the course of your life. An individual who is unaware of their rights may have them violated without even knowing leading to a negative result for you, such as arrest, conviction and incarceration. The importance of understanding the status of developments in the law is the key to avoiding criminal liability, as well as being an engaged citizen in our participatory system of government. This blog post on a key new case was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle criminal defense cases and appeals of criminal convictions throughout the state. Knowing the law is a key to be an engaged citizen. Having criminal defense counsel current on the latest developments in law provides you with the best criminal defense. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.
- See generally, Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978)
- Carl Smith v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-3009 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019).