Sticking to the Inventory Policy Results in Admissible Evidence

United States v. Nielsen, 2023 WL 4568828 (8th Cir. 2023)

A deputy saw a man standing in a dumpster outside of a closed business. A pickup truck was parked perpendicular to the dumpster, blocking access to it. The deputy approached the man and asked him to step out of the dumpster and show some identification. The man produced a driver’s license identifying himself as Scott Joseph Nielsen. The deputy quickly learned Nielsen had an active felony-drug warrant. When the deputy asked Nielsen who owned the vehicle, Nielsen said it belonged to a friend.

The deputy handcuffed and searched Nielsen, finding a multi-tool flashlight and $2,400 in cash. He placed Nielsen in his patrol car and called for a drug detector dog to sniff the truck; the dog did not give a positive final response to the odor of controlled substances. The deputy shined his flashlight into the windows of the truck, observing what he thought to be “burglary style tools” and other suspicious items. He spoke with another deputy about calling the registered owner to pick up the truck, though he was concerned because the registered owner lived approximately 25-30 minutes away.

When the deputy heard Nielsen’s cell phone ringing inside the truck, he asked Nielsen if he wanted his phone. He also asked Nielsen if there were any keys he needed from his keychain because the officers were “most likely” going to tow the vehicle. The deputy entered the truck to retrieve Nielsen’s phone. Observing the truck’s interior, he decided to tow it per agency policy.

The impound policy stated, “Deputies are required to tow motor vehicles for the following reasons: a) the driver is taken into custody…” The policy does allow deputies the discretion to release the vehicle “to another individual whose name appears on the registration…provided that individual is on scene or can respond to the scene.” In this case, the deputy decided not to call the owner. The policy also mandates deputies conducting inventory searches must search “all areas of the vehicle, including the trunk,” as well as “all containers within the vehicle, open or closed…for valuable items.”

The appellate court noted that when deputies conduct an inventory search according to standardized police procedures, the reasonableness requirement is generally met.

The deputy saw a black leather binoculars case in the passenger seat. Believing the case contained “an item of value,” he opened it and found two plastic bags containing methamphetamine. He also found $11,621.36 in cash. Nielsen was eventually charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He asked the trial court to suppress the evidence from the inventory search, claiming, “The search was not supported by probable cause; the inventory search was a pretext for an investigatory search; law enforcement lacked the authority to tow the vehicle; and the deputy exceeded the scope of any permissible inventory search when he opened the binoculars case.” When the district court denied Nielsen’s motion, he appealed.

The Supreme Court has clearly established that police may conduct inventories of seized property (Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987)). The justification for an inventory rests 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)). The inventory must also 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, which, for a car, may extend to the glove compartment, trunk and closed containers.

The appellate court noted that when deputies conduct an inventory search according to standardized police procedures, the reasonableness requirement is generally met. The discretion allowed in the agency policy to release a vehicle to a registered, insured driver instead of towing it does not defeat the reasonableness of the search as long as this discretion “is exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.” The court cited the inventory search policy requirement to open all containers within the vehicle, whether open or closed, to inventory them for valuable items. The deputy did so in opening the binoculars case to determine whether there were any items of value inside: “Such a policy is ’unquestionably permissible,’ and we therefore refuse to invalidate the inventory search on this basis.”

The court rejected Nielsen’s argument that the deputy should have released the truck to the owner: “Even if we assume that the deputy had an investigatory motive, we still hold that the inventory search was reasonable.” The court held the deputy reasonably exercised his discretion in refusing to allow the owner to come to the scene and retrieve the truck, given he knew the owner lived approximately 25-30 minutes away. “Moreover, in conducting the actual inventory search of Nielsen’s vehicle, the officers followed SCSD policies exactly .”

Two lessons are evident in this case: First, an agency must have a detailed inventory policy to guide officers. Second, individual officers must adhere to that policy and document their actions. The deputy in this case followed his agency policy “exactly,” and both the trial and appellate courts responded by affirming admission of the methamphetamine found during the inventory search.

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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