Delayed Inventory of Backpack Leads to Admissible Evidence

United States v. Sapalasan, 2024 WL 1356974 (9th Cir. 2024)

Officers responded to a call about gunshots at an apartment complex. As the officers approached, they encountered Markanthony Sapalasan, who was carrying a red backpack, and another person walking away from the building. An officer saw a gun protruding from Sapalasan’s front pocket. The officer drew his gun, commanded Sapalasan not to move, and retrieved the loaded gun. There was a round in the chamber and one round missing from the magazine.

The officer arrested Sapalasan, handcuffed him and put him in a patrol car. The officer took Sapalasan’s backpack and asked for consent to search it. Sapalasan consented. The officer found no contraband during his search. He learned from others that a person had been found dead in the apartment building with a single gunshot wound. After placing Sapalasan’s backpack in the front passenger seat, the officer took him to the police station for further questioning.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated inventory searches must comply with reasonable police policies.

Sapalasan was interviewed at the police station. The arresting officer stayed only briefly during the interview before returning to patrol. He still had Sapalasan’s backpack on the seat of his car. Sapalasan was released after the interview. Later in the shift, the officer returned to the station and conducted a detailed inventory search of Sapalasan’s backpack. When he found methamphetamine in Sapalasan’s backpack, the officer stopped the search and obtained a search warrant.

Sapalasan was charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He asked the trial judge to suppress the methamphetamine, claiming the search of his backpack violated the Fourth Amendment. The judge denied his motion. Sapalasan was convicted of both charges. He appealed the denial of his suppression motion.

Police may conduct inventories of seized property (Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987)). The justification for inventories rest on three needs: “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)). An inventory may not be used as a ruse to search for evidence, though an officer’s mixed motives will not necessarily invalidate an otherwise proper inventory. Further, the inventory must be conducted in accordance with a standard policy (Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990)). When an officer arrests a person and takes the person to a police facility for booking, the officer may conduct an inventory search of the person’s belongings as part of the booking process (Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640 (1983)).

Once the court agreed there was a lawful reason to conduct an inventory in connection with booking Sapalasan, the court turned to the question of whether the officer followed the agency’s inventory policy. The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated inventory searches must comply with reasonable police policies. Adhering to a standardized agency policy helps prevent searches that rest on a concealed investigatory motive. In this case, department policy required an “immediate” inventory search of property seized during the booking process. The officer conducted the inventory search of the backpack at the end of his shift rather than right after taking the backpack from Sapalasan. The agency’s policy also had a requirement that “all property collected under the color of authority shall be submitted on the date collected, received, seized, or no later than the end of the employee’s assigned shift, or detail, directly to the Evidence Section.” The court observed that although the officer did not “immediately make an inventory list” of Sapalasan’s backpack, the property was placed into evidence at the end of his shift.

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The court held the officer made a “minor deviation,” but still substantially complied with department policy. The court stated the officer’s obligation to return to service to handle other more urgent calls was reasonable. The officer’s “substantial compliance” with the policy rendered the inventory search of Sapalasan’s backpack lawful. Sapalasan also claimed the officer lacked probable cause to conduct the inventory search once Sapalasan had been released from custody. However, the Supreme Court held that “justification for inventory searches does not rest on probable cause,” continuing that “probable cause to search is irrelevant in inventory searches” (Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640 (1983)). Thus, whether the officer had probable cause to conduct an inventory search was irrelevant in determining the inventory search’s constitutionality. Though the officer was probably very busy with calls following a whodunit murder, the better course would have been to complete the inventory at the time Sapalasan was first booked, fully complying with agency inventory policy.

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 four 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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