Completing Crash Report Didn’t Justify Search of Purse

by | November 28, 2018

State v. Evans, 2018 (Kan 2018)

Julia Evans drove off the freeway, up a hill, flipped her car and ran into a pole. Evans told the responding officer she did not want an ambulance, but rescue personnel were almost at the scene. Upon arrival, they extricated Evans and loaded her into an ambulance. The officer asked the ambulance crew to inquire about Evans’ driver license to which they agreed, but failed to do.The officer found Evans’ wallet and purse on the seat of her crashed car and intended to hold them for safekeeping since the car was going to be impounded. While searching the wallet for Evans’ driver’s license, the officer found a small bag of crystal methamphetamine. Evans was later charged with drug crimes.

Evans asserted the warrantless search of her wallet violated the Fourth Amendment. The prosecution argued the inventory doctrine and/or the community caretaking doctrine justified searching her purse. According to Colorado v. Bertine (479 U.S. 367 (1987)), police may conduct inventories of seized property. 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)). Nonetheless, the inventory must be conducted in accordance with a standard inventory policy, as decided in Florida v. Wells (495 U.S. 1 (1990)).

The officer testified “it’s my practice, when there’s something of possible value in the car, I like to collect it for safekeeping, so it doesn’t get lost, or stolen from the wrecker yard.” However, there was no evidence or testimony indicating the agency had a standard written policy governing inventories of seized or impounded vehicles or other property. The court held the search could not be justified by either the community caretaking or the inventory exceptions to the Fourth Amendment.

If only the agency had promulgated an inventory policy, trained the officer and presented evidence of the same, the decision may well have been different.

The court also held completing the accident report was not a valid justification to search the wallet for a driver’s license. Thus, the evidence was suppressed and Evans was acquitted of the drug crime.

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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