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Published on 9/26/2022, 4:16:00 PM

Inventory searches in Maryland - Legal or not?

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, every search or seizure conducted by a government agent must be reasonable. Generally, searches and seizures are considered unreasonable and invalid unless they are based on probable cause and executed pursuant to a valid search warrant.

However, some types of searches and seizures are valid as exceptions to these probable cause and search warrant requirements. The inventory search is not one of those searches. Inventory searches are not supposed to be used to circumvent the fourth amendment; however, practically they often are a way around the fourth amendment used by law enforcement across Maryland.

An inventory search of an impounded vehicle is not a search that is an exception to the fourth amendment. Instead, it is a unique type of vehicle check that isn't considered a search by Courts.

If they aren't a legal search, what are they?

CourtEven though they aren't necessarily a legal search - Courts have upheld the admission of items found in vehicles that were lawfully in police custody, including guns and drugs found in the glove compartment, passenger compartment, trunk, engine compartments, and containers in the vehicle.

These items are held to have been incidentally found while a proper inventory was being taken of a vehicle.

However, for an inventory search to be valid, law enforcement authorities who search the vehicle must comply with certain requirements. In a haste to circumvent the warrant requirement, these procedures are usually ignored, resulting in illegal searches.

If they fail to comply with these requirements, anything recovered during the search will be deemed inadmissible in a resulting criminal case, ONLY IF YOUR LAWYER CHALLENGES THE SEARCH.

In this article, we examine inventory searches in the state of Maryland.

Overview of the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. The Fourth Amendment, however, does not prevent all types of searches and seizures-it only prohibits those that are deemed unreasonable under the law.

Specifically, the Fourth Amendment gives people the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, and it protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Diminished expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle

The Supreme Court of the United States recognized that a person has a lesser expectation of privacy in their vehicle under what is now called the Carroll Doctrine. This doctrine encompasses many of the warrantless search exceptions of motor vehicles.

In plain english, this is what most Police Officers rely upon to search vehicles they stop on the roadway. Police Officers almost never have a warrant to search a vehicle they stop, therefore most searches happen under a warrantless search exception.

As long as a person doesn't give consent - an Officer is likely using a warrantless search exception. The most commonly used tactic to search motor vehicles in Maryland is the smell of marijuana.

Car searched for odor of marijuana

car with police carIt is currently a legally recognized reason to search a vehicle based on the odor of marijuana in Maryland. It is also an exceptionally hard ground to challenge, because odor isn't something that can examined in Court.

It isn't possible to capture an odor, and body worn camera technology doesn't have smelly vision. There's no way to argue it should've been captured for the purposes of a suppression hearing.

Often the best way to challenge odor comes down to whether or not any marijuana was found, or if there was an admission to previous use in the vehicle.

The Warrant Requirement

It requires probable cause supported by oath or affirmation for a search warrant to be issued, and the search warrant must describe with particularity the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. These are usually sought well in advance of a search, not on the side of the road after a speed stop.

The ultimate purpose of this amendment is to protect people's right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable intrusions by representatives of the government.

However, as noted above, the Fourth Amendment does not provide protection from all types of searches and seizures-only those conducted by the government that are deemed unreasonable under the law.

What is an Inventory Search?

An inventory search is not actually a search. Technically, the purpose for getting into the vehicle is to inventory the contents before the car is impounded.

In other words, when evidence is discovered during a lawfully conducted inventory search in Maryland, the state may use it against the defendant in a later trial-even though no search warrant was issued prior to entering the vehicle.

In the case of South Dakota v. Opperman, the United States Supreme Court outlined three justifications for permitting law enforcement officers to inventory lawfully impounded property without first obtaining a search warrant.

  1. First, there is a need for law enforcement officials to take steps to protect an owner's property while it remains in the custody of the police.

  2. Second, an inventory of a person's property protects the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property.

  3. And third, an inventory is needed for the protection of law enforcement officers from potential threats that may be located in the property.

The court also noted that since inventory searches are routine, non-criminal procedures that do not hinge on the existence of probable cause, the absence of a search warrant is immaterial to the reasonableness of an inventory search.

Using an inventory to get around the fourth amendment

Court justiceFor an inventory of a motor vehicle to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, it must not be a ruse used by law enforcement officials to try to discover incriminating evidence. So, the policy or practice governing inventory searches by law enforcement officers should be designed solely to produce an inventory.

When law enforcement officers act for the sole purpose of investigation or otherwise act in bad faith, an inventory search will be held invalid, and any resulting evidence will be deemed inadmissible in court.

Many times this can be argued based on the words of the officer themselves. When a consent search is declined, and there exists no other basis for a Carroll Doctrine search, Officers will threaten to tow a car to perform a "search". If they don't get a warrant beforehand, you'll need a criminal defense lawyer who understands what makes an inventory an illegal search.

Inventory Search Purposes

Inventory searches serve several purposes, all of which are collectively designed to protect the public and law enforcement authorities. These purposes are as follows:

  • To protect people's property while it is in law enforcement custody

  • To protect law enforcement against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property

  • To protect law enforcement from potential dangers located in the property

Inventory Search Requirements

In order for law enforcement officials to conduct an inventory search of a vehicle, two requirements must be met.

First, the vehicle must have been impounded lawfully

Judge's gavelThere are several reasons why law enforcement officers may lawfully impound a vehicle.

Contact with federal law enforcement officers in most cases, if not always, involves the investigation or detection of crimes that are unrelated to the operation of a vehicle.

In such cases, a federal law enforcement officer may arrest an individual and impound his or her vehicle if there is no other person available to take control of it.

As opposed to federal law enforcement officers, however, local and state police officers have much more contact with vehicles for reasons that are related to the operation of the vehicles themselves.

These state and local officers may impound vehicles for many reasons that are unrelated to any criminal investigation.

Next, the search be conducted in accordance with a standardized policy aimed at accomplishing specific justifications for inventory searches.

Each law enforcement agency is required to have a standardized inventory search policy; however, several courts have upheld unwritten standardized policies as valid.

Regardless, as a practical matter, the safest way for a law enforcement agency to avoid difficulties with this requirement would be to reduce all standardized inventory policies to writing.

Finally, law enforcement agencies are permitted to establish their own standardized inventory search policies if they are conducted in good faith and reasonably constructed to accomplish the goals of inventory searches.

The State must offer affirmative evidence of this policy during a suppression hearing. This typically consists of a copy of the actual policy itself, and any inventory list that was created during the search. Failure to do so could result in suppression of anything found during the inventory.

The Scope of an Inventory Search

Judge in chambersAs discussed above, law enforcement agencies must have a standardized inventory search policy. The scope of an inventory search is defined by the standardized policy of the law enforcement agency involved.

As a general rule, though, an inventory search may not extend any further than is reasonably necessary to discover property for safekeeping.

For example, law enforcement officers may not search inside the door panels or heater ducts of a vehicle since valuables are not normally kept in such locations.

However, the United States Supreme Court has upheld inventory searches of the passenger compartments of vehicles.

In addition, inventory searches of the trunks of vehicles have also been found valid. Finally, inventory searches of containers, whether locked or unlocked, may also be conducted if such searches are permitted by a law enforcement agency's standardized inventory policy.

Contact a Maryland Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you you've been arrested in the state of Maryland, you need a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense lawyer in your corner. At FrizWoods, our attorneys focus solely on defending people against criminal charges.

Attorneys Luke Woods and Max Frizalone are passionate advocates for justice, and they both have strong track records of obtaining successful results for their clients.

When you come to us for assistance with your Maryland criminal case, attorneys Woods and Frizalone will utilize their vast experience and knowledge to provide you with the strongest defense possible.

If you are ready to begin mounting your defense, please contact us today to schedule a free and confidential initial consultation with one of our experienced criminal defense attorneys.