Iowa Supreme Court Issues Direction on Police Vehicle Inventory Searches

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The recent Iowa State Supreme Court case regarding vehicle inventories, State v. Ingram, may have law enforcement agencies frustrated. But police officers are used to being masters of flexibility. Time and again law enforcement adjusts to decisions by applying common sense and training to keep officers and the public safe. Ingram presents another opportunity to do just that.

While this case may be surprising to some law enforcement practitioners in Iowa, it is not surprising to Lexipol. We have seen similar issues related to vehicle impoundment and inventories in other states, so our policy content already addresses many of the Court’s concerns.

The Ingram case involved the inventory search of a closed black cloth bag following a decision by law enforcement to impound a vehicle because of a registration violation. The driver indicated there was nothing of value in the car, but officers searched the bag and found illegal substances inside. The driver was subsequently arrested and convicted. The Ingram case is the result of his appeal, and the Court reversed the earlier conviction, invalidating the inventory search of the bag.

Following is our analysis of this case as well as an explanation of the policy changes Lexipol has issued to Iowa customers as a result of the ruling.

Searches and Seizures in Policy
Search and seizure issues are not generally a matter of policy, other than the need for an agency’s policy to address constitutional rights related to search and seizure. Training is a more effective and accurate way to address the many nuances that arise in search and seizure cases, as well as any local prosecutorial preferences and local judicial direction.

Lexipol’s Search and Seizure Policy stresses the need for such training:

POLICY
All seizures by this department will comply with relevant federal and state law governing the seizure of persons and property.

The department will provide relevant and current training to officers as guidance for the application of current law, local community standards and prosecutorial considerations regarding specific search and seizure situations, as appropriate.

SEARCHES
Because case law regarding search and seizure is constantly changing and subject to interpretation by the courts, each member of this department is expected to act in each situation according to current training and his/her familiarity with clearly established rights as determined by case law.

Whenever practicable, officers are encouraged to contact a supervisor to resolve questions regarding search and seizure issues prior to electing a course of action.

Lexipol continues to recommend agencies invest the time to train officers on the fact-specific, ever-changing, and complex issues involved with searches and seizures.

The Ingram Decision and Lexipol’s Vehicle Towing Policy
The two law enforcement agencies involved in the Ingram case were not Lexipol customers at the time. Had Ingram involved agencies following Lexipol’s policy guidance, the case may well have turned out differently. The Court’s concerns about considering alternatives to towing, asking drivers whether they have items of value, allowing drivers to remove items, and opening closed items for inventory are all addressed in Lexipol policy.

For example, Lexipol’s Vehicle Towing Policy provides for exploring alternatives to impoundment:

ARREST SCENES
Officers are not required to investigate whether alternatives to towing a vehicle exist after an arrest. However, a vehicle should not be towed if reasonable alternatives exist. When considering whether to leave a vehicle at the scene, officers should take into consideration public safety as well as the reasonable safety of the vehicle and its contents.

The following are examples of situations where a vehicle should not be towed:

• The vehicle can be legally parked, left in a reasonably secure and safe location and is not needed as evidence.
• The vehicle is parked on private property, on which the arrestee or owner is legally residing, or the property owner does not object to the vehicle being parked at that location.
• The arrestee or owner of the vehicle requests that it be released to a person who is present, willing and able to legally take control of the vehicle.
• The vehicle is legally parked and the arrestee or owner requests that it be left at the scene. In such cases the requester should be informed that the department will not be responsible for theft or damages.

Lexipol policy also addresses the Court’s concern that when impoundment is contemplated, law enforcement should ask the driver whether there is any property in the vehicle the driver wishes to retain; if there is, the driver should be allowed to retrieve it:

VEHICLE INVENTORY
Members should ask the occupants whether the vehicle contains any valuables or hazardous materials. Responses should be noted in the inventory report.

SECURITY OF VEHICLES AND RETRIEVAL OF PROPERTY
Unless it would cause an unreasonable delay in towing the vehicle or create an issue of officer safety, reasonable accommodations should be made to permit the owner, operator or occupant to retrieve small items of value or personal need (e.g., cash, jewelry, cell phone, prescriptions) that are not considered evidence or contraband.

In the end, the Ingram court invalidated the inventory search of a closed container. Lexipol policy already generally prohibits opening closed containers:

VEHICLE INVENTORY
The contents of all vehicles towed at the request of department members shall be inventoried and listed on the inventory report. When reasonably practicable, photographs may be taken to assist in the inventory.

* * *

(d) Closed containers located either within the vehicle or any of the vehicle’s compartments will not be opened for inventory purposes except for the following: wallets, purses, coin purses, fanny packs, personal organizers, briefcases or other closed containers designed for carrying money, small valuables or hazardous materials.

As the foregoing excerpts demonstrate, Lexipol policy provides for exploring alternatives to impoundment and allowing personal items to be retrieved from the vehicle. It also constrains the search of closed containers.

Some have interpreted Ingram as holding that a closed container cannot be searched unless the person consents. However, it is not at all clear based on the Ingram decision that consent would be required if, as Lexipol policy guides, an officer has explored reasonable alternatives to impoundment and the driver indicates that a closed container contains valuables or hazardous materials but does not want to retrieve the container.

The Ingram case did not involve an item designed to carry valuables or hazardous items. And there was no evidence that is what the inventorying officer thought, or that the Court considered it to be such an item. The Court relied on Oregon and Washington cases in its decision. Both states require inventorying closed containers without opening them—UNLESS the container is one designed to contain or objectively likely to contain valuable or dangerous items. A case involving the search of such a closed item would be distinguishable. And given the Court’s reliance on these Oregon and Washington cases, it is not clear that the result would be the same.

Also, the Court addressed only the inventory search doctrine. And as one concurring justice noted, there are other doctrines available to protect these interests, including plain view, Terry, and probable cause. Although not specifically mentioned, community caretaking might be another doctrine applicable here.

Policy Changes Based on Ingram
To make clear that closed containers should only be opened under the inventory doctrine if there is consent—but recognizing additional search doctrines may allow for opening some closed containers—Lexipol has made two small adjustments to the Vehicle Towing Policy.

Specifically, we adjusted the language in the Vehicle Inventory subsection (d) to provide more caution against inventorying the contents of closed containers. Additionally, in the paragraph immediately following subsection (d), we removed content indicating officers should open a container if a passenger indicates it contains valuable or hazardous materials.

The intent of these changes is to make clear that closed containers should only be opened if consent has been given or if there is some other legal justification for opening the container. The amended policy content accounts for the complexities that may arise in these situations and allows room for other legal justifications for the need to open a closed container. Lexipol’s existing policy guidance addresses the remaining concerns raised by the Ingram court.

We encourage Iowa law enforcement agencies that are Lexipol customers to review and process these changes quickly.

A Note on Training
Lexipol does not provide procedural guidance in the Vehicle Towing Policy as reasonable minds can differ on those requirements. Consistent with Lexipol’s Search and Seizure Policy, agencies should consult with their legal advisors and local prosecutors on the Ingram case to develop and provide “relevant and current training to officers as guidance for the application of current law, local community standards and prosecutorial considerations regarding specific search and seizure situations, as appropriate.”

Training should include:
a) What advisements or admonishments should be given to vehicle occupants.
b) When a vehicle may be towed without the owner’s presence or consent.
c) Officer safety issues, including handling of closed containers and hazardous materials.
d) Risks associated with leaving containers unopened, including how those risks may be mitigated.
e) Reasonable alternatives to towing a vehicle.

Your Partner in Risk Management
Law enforcement agencies that can quickly adapt to new case law maintain an advantage when it comes to managing risk and ensuring the safety of the public they serve. Lexipol remains committed to providing the policy guidance to help our customers react to this and future court rulings.

Related: Invalid Vehicle Impound Leads to Suppression of Gun

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