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Inventory searches constitute a well-recognized exception to the warrant requirement and are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. An inventory search is lawful if (1) the individual whose possession is to be searched has been lawfully arrested, and (2) the search is conducted as part of the routine procedure incident to incarcerating an arrested person and in accordance with established inventory procedures. Both the decision to take the car into custody and the concomitant inventory search must meet the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. The decision to impound (the 'seizure') is properly analyzed as distinct from the decision to inventory (the 'search').
On February 18, 2008, a confidential informant ("CI") contacted DEA Special Agent Hubert Davidson and told Agent Davidson that he had set up a deal where the CI would purchase nine ounces of crack from a supplier. The CI also told Agent Davidson that he had purchased crack from Sid on two prior occasions. He described Sid as a heavyset black male, approximately 34-35 years old, with short hair, and gold teeth. The CI also told Agent Davidson that Sid liked to drive fancy cars. On the day of the operation, the agents and the CI drove to Sid’s current location at the Champs liquor store on Grant street. Upon passing Champs, Agent Davidson noticed a silver Nissan Maxima parked at the liquor store. There were only two cars parked at the liquor store at that point: the Maxima, and another car. Other units noticed that the Maxima was occupied by a black male. The maxima had backed into the parking space, which Agent Davidson thought was odd for that particular parking lot. After the CI saw the Maxima, he told agents it was similar to the vehicles that he had seen Sid drive in the past, although he had not ever seen Sid driving this particular car. At that point, Brian (the CI’s contact) called the CI again, who told the CI that Sid was preparing to leave the Champs liquor store. The agents and the CI, who had driven past Champs, turned around and started heading back toward Champs. Other units observed the Maxima leaving the Champs parking lot. Cpl. Smith of the Gary Police Department, who was part of the investigation then observed the Maxima, which was driving in the left lane, make an abrupt lane change to the right lane, causing several cars to swerve to avoid getting into a collision. Cpl. Smith believed the driver of the Maxima had just committed a traffic violation. At that point, Cpl. Smith activated his lights and effectuated a traffic stop of the Maxima. After stopping the Maxima, Cpl. Smith asked the driver of the vehicle for his driver's license and registration. The driver produced a license, but could not find his registration. The license revealed that the driver's name was defendant Sidney Sellers. While his license was being checked, Agent Davidson slowly drove by the traffic stop with the CI, and the CI identified the driver of the Maxima as "Sid." Cpl. Smith then asked Sellers to step out of his vehicle so they could speak at the rear of the vehicle. Cpl. Smith asked Sellers if he had any weapons on his person. Sellers said that he did not, but that he had a gun in the vehicle located between the driver’s seat and the center console. He produced an Illinois firearm owner's identification card, but failed to produce a valid Indiana handgun license. Officer Geyer of the Gary Police Department then entered the front seat of Sellers’ car and retrieved a fully-loaded Glock 9mm semiautomatic handgun in the exact location where Sellers said it was. After the gun was recovered, Sellers was handcuffed and arrested for possessing a handgun without a license. After Sellers was placed under arrest, Cpl. Smith decided the vehicle needed to be towed because Sellers was under arrest and there was no one else there to move the vehicle. Cpl. Smith also did an inventory search of the Maxima prior to towing the vehicle. While doing the inventory search, Cpl. Smith found several plastic bags containing a powdery substance, which, according to the parties' briefs, was later identified as the crack and powder cocaine that led to Sellers’ indictment. Sellers argued, among others, that the search of the trunk that revealed the drugs was not a proper inventory search because his arrest was not justified.
Was the search of the trunk that revealed the drugs constitutional for being a proper inventory search?
As to the first element of a lawful inventory search, the search was not unconstitutional. Once the officers knew that Sellers possessed a gun in his vehicle's passenger compartment and did not have a valid gun license under Indiana law, they had probable cause to believe that Sellers had violated Indiana law requiring handgun owners to have a license. As to the second element, the testimony at the suppression hearing established that the Gary Police Department had a policy of towing vehicles after a driver is placed under arrest. The testimony also revealed that the Gary Police Department had a policy that requires officers to do an inventory search of the vehicle before the vehicle is towed. The purpose of this search is to inventory the items within the car and to check the vehicle for any damage. This is to protect the police department and the towing company from accusations that items were stolen from the car, or that the car was damaged after it was towed.