An inventory search is a narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. This search occurs after a defendant is arrest, but before incarceration. Briefly, the police are allowed to search the defendant/arrestee without a warrant and inventory the property in their possession. The goals of this search are to protect the defendant’s property while s/he is being held; to protect law enforcement from false property claims; and to safeguard the police from danger. These searches are administrative in nature, and frequently do not receive significant attention. In State v. Hummel, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently provided guidance on what qualifies as a proper inventory search.
Thomas Corbin was killed on December 5, 2010. Two days later, law enforcement informed Lori Hummel that they wanted to take her to a police station for two outstanding traffic-related bench warrants. She was then taken to the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, where she was met by several detectives and placed in an interrogation room. She had her purse on the table in front of her. Detectives entered the room to begin questioning her, and sat down at the table without frisking her or removing her purse. Soon after questioning started, she reached into her purse to get her cell phone. She checked the time, and told the detectives that she had to pick up her daughter by a certain time. The detectives did not comment on that but instead asked her to be sworn in, and then questioned her without first advising her of her Miranda rights. When asked about her cell phone, she began looking through her purse for the receipt from its purchase. The detectives continued questioning her about her relationship with Corbin.
The detectives then left the room. After returning her possessions to her purse, she left the room and asked the detectives if she could leave to get her daughter. They did not allow her to leave and she asked if she was under arrest. One of the detectives said “technically” because of the traffic warrants, and that they still had questions for her. She indicated that she thought she should get an attorney. After questioning her about her decision to obtain counsel, the detectives left the room. One of the detectives then came back in, cuffed her leg to a bar on the floor and told her she had an outstanding traffic warrant. She asked repeatedly if she could call her lawyer. The detective who cuffed her took her purse from the table, and the defendant objected. Another detective then told her she was in custody. As the detective with the purse left the room, the defendant said “Hopefully that $500 ain’t missing out of there.” Continue reading