Washington: An Overview of Legal Requirements for Inventory Searches of Motor Vehicles in WA
Inventory Search Exception
An inventory search does not require a warrant because it is not conducted for the purpose of discovering evidence of a crime. State v. Houser, 95 Wn.2d 143, 153 (1980). Such searches are permissible only so long as their “direction and extent" are “restricted to effectuating the purposes which justify their exceptions to the Fourth Amendment." Id.at 154. Accordingly, vehicle inventory searches are valid only where 1) there is a valid basis for the impoundment; and 2) the intrusion is not made “as a general exploratory search for the purpose of finding evidence of a crime but is made for the justifiable purpose of finding, listing, and securing from loss, during the arrested person’s detention, property belonging to him." State v. White, 135 Wn.2d 761, 770 (1998) (quotingState v. Montague, 73 Wn.2d 381 (1968)).
The Washington Supreme Court held inState v. Williamsthat before an inventory search can be conducted the defendant must be asked if he wants one done. The Court stated:
However, even if impoundment had been authorized, it is doubtful that the police could have conducted a routine inventory search without asking petioner if he wanted one done. The purpose of the inventory search is to protect the police from lawsuits arising from the mishandling or personal property of a defendant. Clearly, a defendant may reject this protection, preferring to take the chance that no loss occurred. See generally United States v. Lyons, 706 F.2d 321, 335 n.23 (D.C. Cir. 1983).
State v. Williams, 102 Wn.2d 733, 743 (1984)
The Supreme Court in a footnote inState v. Whitereiterated its position that a defendant must be asked if he wants an inventory done. InWhite, the Court found the police had exceeded the scope of an inventory search but indicated in a footnote that even if it hadn’t, there was no evidence in the record that the defendant had been asked if he consented to the search. Specifically, the Court stated in footnote 11:
Further, the record does not indicate White was ever asked whether he would consent to an inventory search, and the State makes no claim that he was. White was never given the opportunity to reject the protection available and, thus, the search is also suspect under State v. Williams, 102 Wash.2d 733, 689 P.2d 1065 (1984). In Williams, the court held police may not conduct a routine inventory search following the lawful impoundment of a vehicle without asking the owner, if present, if he or she will consent to the search. Williams, 102 Wash.2d at 743, 689 P.2d 1065; see also United States v. Wanless, 882 F.2d 1459, 1463 (9th Cir. 1989)(decided on state grounds); Robert F. Utter, Survey of Washington Search and Seizure Law, 1988 Update, 11 U. Puget Sound L.Rev 411 (1988). In Washington, an individual is free to reject the protection an inventory search provides and take the chance no loss will occur.
The United States Supreme Court has mandated that “standardized criteria or established routine must regulate the opening of containers found during inventory searches." Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 4 (1990). In theWellscase, officers opened a locked suitcase found in the defendant’s car after impoundment. The law enforcement agency had no policy in place governing the opening of closed containers found during an inventory search. The Court concluded that “absent such a policy, the  search was not sufficiently regulated to satisfy the Fourth Amendment." Id.at 4-5. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s order of suppression. Our courts have observed that “routine inventory searches pursuant to standard police procedures have been held reasonable," but go on to caution that “not every inventory taken in compliance with police department regulations is lawful and where a search is improper it cannot be legitimatized by conducting it pursuant to standard police procedure." Houser, 95 Wn.2d at 154 (internal citations omitted). Thus, police protocol is necessary in order to define the boundaries of an inventory search, but a search is not per se validated by compliance with department policy.
“Inventory searches, unlike other searches, are not conducted to discover evidence of crime." Houser, 95 Wn.2d at 153. As a result, “an inventory search may not be unlimited in scope." Id. at 154. One such limitation is a follows: Closed containers found in an automobile may not be opened and searched pursuant to an inventory of the vehicle’s contents. InHouser, the State Supreme Court concluded that a closed toiletry bag found in the trunk of the defendant’s car should have been simply noted and inventoried, but not opened.
Where a closed piece of luggage in a vehicle gives no indication of dangerous contents, an officer cannot search the contents of the luggage in the course of an inventory search unless the owner consents. Absent exigent circumstances, a legitimate inventory search only calls for noting such an item as a sealed unit.
Id. at 158.
The “luggage" exception set forth in Houser has been extended to other small personal effects. InState v. Dugas, for example, the defendant left his coat on top of his car. After arresting the defendant, law enforcement took the defendant’s jacket for inventory and safekeeping. During a search of the jacket, an officer found a closed key ring pouch inside the jacket pocket. A search of the closed pouch revealed cocaine, and the defendant was charged with unlawful possession. On appeal, Division I concluded that the search of the closed container was impermissible. State v. Dugas, 109 Wn.App. 592, 599 (Div. I 2001).
In order to open a locked or closed container, the police must have reason to believe that a manifest necessity for public safety exists.Houser, 95 Wn.2d at 156. InState v. White, the court made it clear that the possibility of theft does not rise to the level of manifest necessity. State v. White, 135 Wn.2d 761, 771 (1998).
For a discussion of what constitutes a manifest necessity, seeState v. Ferguson, 131 Wn.App 694 (Div. III 2006).