Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Driving While Incriminated

United States v. Lopez, No. 06-3730-cr (2d Cir. November 10, 2008) (Kearse, Leval, Cabranes, CJJ)

Police officers arrested Lopez for drunk driving. He has a gun in his pocket. Meanwhile, other officers, while looking for Lopez’ girlfriend’s identification, found cocaine in her purse.

Both were arrested and the car was brought to the 41st Precinct, where officers conducted an inventory search. This produced, in addition to some innocuous personal items, two glassines of cocaine in the center console, and a bag in the trunk that contained cocaine and cocaine trafficking equipment. Later, while arranging for a family member to pick up his personal belongings, an officer looked in the glove compartment of the car and found a second gun.

After a combined suppression hearing and bench trial, Lopez was convicted and received a seventy-month sentence.

On appeal, he challenged the inventory search on the grounds that it was not a true inventory search because it was not dictated by a standardized policy, and because the police did not create a complete inventory list of the objects found. The circuit affirmed.

Lopez first pointed to the lack of a standard NYPD policy as to whether the officers must produce an itemized list of every object found, or whether items of little value can be grouped under a general category. But the circuit did not view the relevant Supreme Court cases as requiring that “every detail of search procedure must be governed by a standardized policy” because a “standardized policy governing” things like the order in which the parts of a car are searched or the way the results are reported “would do nothing to safeguard the interests protected by the Fourth Amendment.”

Likewise, there was no Fourth Amendment violation even though the officers grouped items of little value under the general category “personal belongings” and did not itemize each one. “That an officer might use a catch-all to cover objects of little or no value in no way casts doubt on the officer’s claim that the purpose of the search was to make an inventory” and it would “serve no useful purpose to require separate itemization of each object found, regardless of its value, as a precondition to accepting a search as an inventory search.”

Finally it did not matter that the search was motivated by the officers’ desire to find more incriminating evidence. “Such motivation … cannot reasonably disqualify an inventory search that is performed under standardized procedures for legitimate custodial purposes.”

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