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.”
In response to this comment, the detectives began to empty the purse. They gave defendant the chance to search it herself, but she declined. In the purse, the detectives discovered two electronic benefits cards from the State’s “Families First” supplemental income program. When asked if they were hers, the defendant responded that everything in the purse belonged to her. One of the detectives then read the defendant the name of another person on one of the cards, and the defendant denied knowing how the card got into her purse. A detective then returned everything to the purse and left with it. The defendant remained shackled for two hours, and the detectives failed to allow her to call an attorney after she ashed to do so. She was released later that day, but arrested three days later.
The defendant moved to suppress her statements and the physical evidence from the interrogation. The motion court suppressed the formed, but not the latter. The Appellate Division found that the card(s) should have been suppressed because the inventory search turned into a warrantless investigatory search.
The Supreme Court found that the inventory search was invalid. The Court noted that such a search must be reasonable under the circumstances. This involved a two-step inquiry: first, whether the property’s impoundment was justified; and second, whether the inventory procedure was legal. Courts do not have to consider reasonableness until and unless the impoundment is proven to be justified. Reasonableness is, however, defined by the scope of the search, the procedure used, and the availability of less intrusive alternatives.
In the matter at bar, the purse’s impoundment was not justified. Hummel was not arrested before the detectives wanted to impound the purse. She also kept her purse open and within reach throughout the questioning, and looked through it while the detectives were there. The detectives did not frisk her at any point during the detention, and tried to remove the purse only after she asked for a lawyer. They also asked her if she wanted to examine the purse’s contents herself. They would not have done this had they been concerned for their safety. Further, even if the purse was properly impounded, the inventory procedure was illegal. The search was commenced to locate the $500, and the scope should have been limited to that. Also, the department apparently lacked a known procedure for inventory searches, so it was impossible to test the detectives’ actions against it. In this light, the inventory search was unconstitutional.
Every search activity conducted by the police – even something like an inventory search, which is viewed as largely administrative in nature – must be scrutinized for constitutional validity.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey, who represents defendants with charges in the New Jersey Superior Court in all counties, the New York State criminal courts located in New York City, and the United States District Courts in New Jersey and New York City.