Following Inventory Policy Leads to Admissibility of Gun Evidence

by | September 26, 2022

United States v. Walker, 2022 WL 4364126 (5th Cir. 2022)

Two officers were patrolling a high-crime area in Houston, Texas, when they saw a Nissan Altima hesitantly pulling out of a parking lot known for illegal drug sales. When the officers ran license plates, they learned of municipal arrest warrants for Jesse Walker. They also discovered Walker was a gang member and felon.

The officers sped up because the Nissan was travelling at a high speed. The officers saw the Nissan “cross all three lanes and turn on the outside lane of traffic,” beginning to “ erratically…at a high rate of speed.” When the Nissan “suddenly” turned into a gas station, the officers made a traffic stop.

The officers had already decided to arrest Walker based on the outstanding arrest warrants. One officer approached the driver’s side, told Walker he was travelling at a high rate of speed and asked him to produce a driver’s license. Walker said it was “in his pocket,” but began looking in his car for the license. This caused the officers concern regarding what might be in the car. The officers asked Walker to get out of the car so they could detain him while they searched for Walker’s identification. An officer told Walker he was not under arrest. Walker got out of the car and the officers handcuffed him.

Before beginning the search, one officer asked Walker if “there is anything he should know about” in the vehicle. Walker said there is “something you might take me to jail for if I tell you.” He told the officers there was a handgun in the console. The officers arrested Walker and put him in their patrol car. They called for a tow truck, discovering the gun and Walker’s cell phone while conducting an inventory search incident to arrest.

Walker challenged the validity of the underlying arrest warrants, but the court held the officers had a good faith basis to rely on the information about the warrants.

Walker was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He asked the trial court to suppress the handgun, claiming the officers questioned him without a Miranda warning. The Miranda decision states the “prosecution may not use statements stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination” (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)). Thus, the Miranda rule applies when there is both custody and interrogation. If a suspect is not in “custody,” no Miranda rules ever apply. To determine whether a suspect was in custody, courts consider several factors: First, was there a formal arrest? Second, would a reasonable person have felt he or she was not free to end the questioning and walk away? Third, was the suspect’s movement restrained or curtailed to the degree associated with a formal arrest?

Even though the officers told Walker he was “not under arrest,” do you think he was in custody? The court avoided the issue altogether. Rather than tackle the Miranda question, the court looked at the circumstances of the impound and towing of Walker’s car. The court held the officers properly followed police department impound policy that required a complete inventory of the car. Thus, the gun would have inevitably been discovered by the officers as they conducted the inventory search prior to the tow truck taking the car.

Walker also challenged the validity of the underlying arrest warrants, but the court held the officers had a good faith basis to rely on the information about the warrants. In light of the officers’ adherence to the inventory policy (and good documentation), the court observed Walker’s statement about the gun in the console, concededly made without the benefit of a Miranda warning, was “not independently significant.”

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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