Written by attorney Elisabeth K. H. Pasqualini

Exception to the Warrant Requirement- Police "Inventory" Searches

By Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC posted in Searches and Seizures on Monday, September 30, 2013

Police inventory search is an exception to the warrant requirement. A "care-taking" administrative function. Not done to uncover criminal activity.

In Commonwealth v. Gatlos, 2013 Pa. Super. LEXIS 2659 (Pa. Super. Ct. September 10, 2013), the PA Superior Court recently visited the issue of a warrantless search of an automobile pursuant to the police inventory search. The Defendant's vehicle was involved in a multiple vehicle accident. The Defendant was unconscious and taken to the hospital by ambulance. In order to ascertain her identity, the Defendant's purse, inside the vehicle was searched. Inside the car, was a cigar box, missing one cigar. The missing cigar was also inside the vehicle and contained .31 grams of marijuana. The Defendant sought to suppress the evidence obtained from a search of her car, including the issuance of legal warrant for her blood drawn at the hospital for medical reasons.

Can Cars Ever Be Searched Without a Warrant?

Warrantless vehicle searches require probable cause and exigent circumstances, beyond mere mobility of the vehicle. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has never recognized the federal automobile exception to permit a warrantless search of or seizure from a motor vehicle under Pa. Const. art. I, § 8.

What's the "Inventory Search Exception"?

Inventory searches are a well-defined exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and are a recognized part of Pennsylvania law:

It is reasonable for police to search the personal effects of a person under lawful arrest as part of the routine administrative procedure at a police station house incident to booking and jailing the suspect. The justification for such searches does not rest on probable cause, and hence the absence of a warrant is immaterial to the reasonableness of the search. Indeed, the inventory search constitutes a well-defined exception to the warrant requirement. An inventory search is not designed to uncover criminal evidence. Rather, its purpose is to safeguard the seized items in order to benefit both the police and the defendant. The court has recognized inventory searches in the two areas of automobiles and booking procedures.

Two Things Need to Be Present for a Lawful Inventory Search

Two factors must be present in order to justify the reasonableness of an inventory search in the absence of probable cause. The Commonwealth must show:

  1. That the vehicle in question was lawfully within the custody of the police, and
  2. That the search was in fact an inventory search pursuant to the objectives laid down in case law. Motive is the sole factor which distinguishes a criminal investigatory search from a noncriminal inventory search of an automobile.

When is an Inventory Search ok at a Crash Scene?

Police may conduct a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle for the purpose of identifying an unresponsive and otherwise un-identifiable crash victim under circumstances satisfying the following three-part test:

  1. Police have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency exists and believe there is an immediate need for their assistance for the protection of life.
  2. The search is not primarily motivated by intent to arrest and seize evidence. (3)
  3. There is some reasonable basis to associate the emergency with the area of place to be searched. That is, there must be a connection with the area to be searched and the emergency.

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