An inventory search must be conducted for some legitimate police purpose other than a search for evidence.
Defendant became the subject of surveillance by the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) as part of an investigation into cocaine trafficking. During the course of their investigation, DEA agents discovered that the Defendant’s driver’s license had been suspended, meaning that he could be subject to an arrest at any point while operating a motor vehicle. The DEA agents contacted a State police trooper to follow the Defendant’s vehicle, make a lawful stop, and arrest him because they suspected that the trooper would find narcotics while he conducted an inventory search of the vehicle. Following the DEA agents’ instructions, the trooper stopped the Defendant’s car for changing lanes without signaling and arrested him for driving on a suspended license. The trooper conducted an inventory search of the vehicle and located a black backpack in the backseat that contained cocaine. The Defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the backpack.
In the absence of some legitimate police purpose other than a search for evidence, are the police permitted to conduct an inventory search incident to a lawful arrest?
Even if otherwise valid, an inventory search must be conducted for some legitimate police purpose other than a search for evidence, which is considered an investigative search. For example, sometimes police will conduct an inventory search for the legitimate purpose to protect the public against the possibility that the car might contain weapons. Here, the Defendant’s arrest was prearranged for the sole purpose of searching the Defendant’s vehicle to obtain evidence of narcotics. When viewing the trooper’s conduct objectively, the search of the backpack was an investigative search and not an inventory search. Thus, the evidence obtained as a result of an unlawful investigative search was properly suppressed.