United States v. Morris, 2021 WL 1703614 (8th Cir. 2021)
A deputy stopped Dennie Morris for speeding. Upon learning of an arrest warrant for Morris, the deputy arrested him. A frisk revealed a large sum of cash in Morris’s front pocket and Morris subsequently asked the deputy to retrieve more cash and a cell phone from the front seat of his pickup truck. The deputy asked Morris if he had a preferred towing service to tow the truck, Morris expressed his preference and the deputy called for the tow truck.
The deputy then conducted a warrantless inventory search of the truck. The agency policy requires deputies to conduct a vehicle inventory when the driver is arrested, the deputy takes control of the vehicle and the vehicle is towed. During the inventory search, the deputy discovered a drawstring bag containing a digital scale, bundles of one-dollar bills and a plastic bag containing methamphetamine. The deputy notified drug task force investigators, who directed the truck to be towed and held for further investigation. The deputy took Morris to jail, where Morris made incriminating admissions to drug task force investigators.
The deputy not only conducted the inventory in compliance with his agency policy, but he also testified that the policy is intended to document the vehicle contents at the time of the stop and release to a tow driver.
The justification for inventories rests on three needs: 1) the protection of the owner’s property while it remains in police custody, 2) the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, and 3) the protection of the police from potential danger (South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976)). The inventory must be conducted in accordance with a standard policy (Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990)), as a written policy leaves little room for unlawful discretion. The policy must define the scope of the inventory: A vehicle inventory may extend to the glove compartment, trunk and closed containers if so directed by the policy.
Morris argued the inventory search could not have been a valid because he maintained constructive possession of the vehicle while awaiting the tow truck’s arrival. He claimed that, because the deputy allowed him to choose a towing company, the vehicle was not “impounded or otherwise in lawful police custody.” The court disagreed, also rejecting Morris’s claim that the inventory was a pretext.
The deputy not only conducted the inventory in compliance with his agency policy, but he also testified that the policy is intended to document the vehicle contents at the time of the stop and release to a tow driver. The deputy testified the inventory “protects [the officer] and also keeps the tow company honest.” The court found the deputy “to be a credible witness and [found] that he had believed that an inventory was necessary to disincentivize the towing service from damaging or stealing personal property.” Slowing down and following policy led to admission of the drugs and other evidence.
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