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Law School Case Brief

Colorado v. Bertine - 479 U.S. 367, 107 S. Ct. 738 (1987)


Inventory searches are a well-defined exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, U.S. Const. Amend. IV. The policies behind the warrant requirement are not implicated in an inventory search, nor is the related concept of probable cause. 


A Boulder, Colorado, police officer arrested defendant Steven Lee Bertine for driving his van while under the influence of alcohol. After Bertine was taken into custody and before a tow truck arrived to take the van to an impoundment lot, another officer, acting in accordance with local police procedures, inventoried the van's contents and opened a closed backpack in which he found various containers holding controlled substances, cocaine paraphernalia, and a large amount of cash. Prior to his trial in Colorado state court on charges including drug offenses, the trial court granted Bertine's motion to suppress the evidence found during the inventory search. The trial court held that the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the Federal Constitution but violated the similar provisions of the Colorado Constitution. On an interlocutory appeal by the State, the Supreme Court of Colorado affirmed on the ground that the search violated the Fourth Amendment based on precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States that held that authority to conduct inventory searches did not give the police unbridled authority to search every container and package found in an automobile during such searches. The State was granted a writ of certiorari.


Did the inventory search of Bertine's impounded vehicle and his closed backpack exceed the permissible scope of such search under the Fourth Amendment, rendering the evidence found in the search inadmissible at trial?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment from the Supreme Court of Colorado. The Court held that that reasonable police regulations relating to inventory procedures that were administered in good faith satisfied the Fourth Amendment. In the present case, there was no showing that the police, who were following standardized procedures, acted in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation. The police were potentially responsible for the property taken into their custody. By securing the property, the police protected the property from unauthorized interference. Moreover, the local police department's procedures mandated the opening of closed containers and the listing of their contents. The discretion afforded the police was exercised in light of standardized criteria, related to the feasibility and appropriateness of parking and locking a vehicle rather than impounding it. Finally, there was no showing that the police chose to impound Bertine's van in order to investigate suspected criminal activity.

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