Cocaine found during vehicle 'inventory search' suppressed from evidence

Searches without a warrant are considered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, with only a few specific exceptions. One of those exceptions is called the "community caretaking exception," under which police officers may impound a vehicle that jeopardizes public safety or the efficient movement of traffic.

Once a vehicle has been impounded, the police are then allowed to conduct an "inventory search" of the vehicle, as long as it conforms to the police department's standard procedures. However, an inventory search cannot be simply used as a ruse to rummage for incriminating evidence.

If the inventory search was not valid, any evidence obtained should be suppressed, as seen in the United States Court of Appeals case of U.S. v. Cervantes.

An alleged "inventory search" reveals drugs

Police officers were conducting surveillance of a house that was thought to be used to hid narcotics (a “stash house”) when an unidentified male exited the house with a large white box. This man later drove up to the defendant's truck and handed him the white box. Police officers then followed the defendant throughout the afternoon. Eventually, the officer in charge asked a marked police unit to develop a lawful reason to conduct a traffic stop.

Two officers then stopped the defendant's vehicle for failing to come to a complete stop. When the police signaled, the defendant pulled to the curb appropriately. During the traffic stop, the defendant could not locate his license and police allegedly could find no license in the system under his name. They concluded that the defendant was driving without a license and impounded his vehicle. During an inventory search of the vehicle, the police discovered that the white box held about two kilograms of cocaine.

The defendant was arrested for unlawfully transporting narcotics. After he was booked, it was confirmed that he did, indeed, have a valid driver's license. The defendant moved to suppress the cocaine found in his truck, arguing that the officers' search violated his constitutional rights.

No community caretaking justification

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence related to the alleged inventory search, along with other issues. For a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle to be lawful, it must be conducted pursuant to standard police procedures and be aimed at protecting the owner's property. In addition, the vehicle may only be impounded if the impoundment serves some community caretaking function.

Here, neither of the officers provided any testimony that the defendant's vehicle was posed a safety hazard, parked illegally or was vulnerable to vandalism or theft. In fact, one officer had testified that the defendant appropriately pulled over to the curb in the residential neighborhood. Therefore, the government did not prove that the community caretaking exception applied to this case.

In addition, it was not clear the officers had even followed the procedure within the California Vehicle Code for impoundment, since the defendant was only arrested and taken into custody for a criminal offense after the vehicle was impounded and the inventory search had discovered the drugs. Thus, the evidence could not be used in the criminal proceedings against the defendant.

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