Officer’s Use of Agency’s Inventory Policy Protects Against Protest

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United States v. Sanchez, (10th Cir 2018)

A trooper spotted David Sanchez speeding. When the trooper pulled Sanchez over, Sanchez handed the trooper a passport and an expired Enterprise rental contract in the name of Alexis Fernandez. Fernandez was not in the car and in bold type, the rental contract stated, “NO OTHER DRIVERS PERMITTED.”

The trooper asked Sanchez to sit in his patrol car while he completed a speeding citation. Though Sanchez did not speak English well, he told the trooper that he and his passenger were on their way to Colorado for a week. He also said that his driver license was suspended because of a DUI citation, and that his friend, Fernandez, was in California.

As the dispatcher checked for driver license, criminal history and outstanding warrants, the trooper deployed his drug detector dog for an exterior sniff of the rental car. The dog did not indicate the presence of controlled substances odors.

The trooper asked Sanchez for consent to search the car and gave Sanchez a Spanish-language consent form. Sanchez refused.

The trooper then called Enterprise. Because the contract was expired; the rental car was authorized to be driven only in California, Nevada and Arizona; and Fernandez was not present, Enterprise asked the trooper to impound the car.

The trooper told Sanchez that the car would be impounded, but first he would need to inventory the contents of the car. Following the Lexipol impound policy promulgated by the Highway Patrol, the trooper began conducting an inventory of the car. Neither Sanchez nor his passenger asked to remove any personal items from the car trunk. Upon conducting inventory in the trunk, the trooper located 10 packages of methamphetamine.

Charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, Sanchez asked the court to suppress the drug evidence found in the trunk. The trial court found Sanchez had legal standing to challenge the inventory, even though he was not named on the rental contract. Notwithstanding, the trial court also ruled that the trooper properly followed his agency’s inventory policy and conducted a lawful inventory.

Sanchez appealed, asserting the inventory policy violates the Fourth Amendment and the trooper’s subjective intent to find contraband invalidated the inventory search.

When it comes to inventories, there’s long-standing rhetoric. The Supreme Court has long held that officers may conduct inventories of seized vehicles and other property (Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987)). The inventory must also be conducted in accordance with a standard policy (Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990)). The Supreme Court has articulated three justifications for inventories: “the protection of the owner’s property while it remains in police custody; the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property; and the protection of the police from potential danger” (South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976)).

Furthermore, an officer can’t use an inventory solely as a ruse to search for evidence, but suspicion can influence their decision. The 10th Circuit has previously held, “while mixed motives or suspicions undoubtedly exist in many inventory searches, such motives or suspicions alone will not invalidate an otherwise proper inventory search” (United States v. Cecala, 2000 WL 18948 (10th Cir. 2000)).

In our case, the trooper acknowledged that he wanted to search the rental car for drugs, yet even so, he had another motive for the inventory. Once Enterprise requested the impound, the trooper was obligated to follow his agency’s inventory policy and make a complete inventory search of the car and its contents. Thus, the evidence was admissible.

The other issue raised in Sanchez is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in another case, Byrd v. United States, (No. 16-1371 (argued Jan 9, 2018)): Does a driver who is not listed on the rental agreement, but has the renter’s permission to use the car, have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car’s trunk? Terrence Byrd was stopped while driving on an interstate highway in Pennsylvania. When officers searched the trunk of the rental car, they found body armor and 49 bricks of heroin. A decision on Byrd’s standing to contest the search is expected later this year.

Though in many ways the Sanchez case speaks to the routine traffic stop and impound, several factors led to the discovery and evidentiary admissibility of the large quantity of methamphetamine: the trooper’s knowledge of and determination to follow his agency’s inventory policy, his willingness to take the traffic stop step by step, and his detailed report and testimony of his actions. This is another example of excellent street-cop work leading to a safer community.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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