05-08: Search and Seizure: Inventory
Case: Williams v. State, 2005 WL 1026560 (4th DCA)

Date: May 17, 2005 (Opinion filed May 4, 2005)

FACTS: Williams was arrested for possession of cocaine after legally parking and leaving his car in a parking lot. Pursuant to written departmental policy, Williams' car was impounded; an inventory search revealed a crack cocaine pipe and a digital scale, which formed the basis of the one of the charges against him. He moved to suppress the pipe and scale, arguing that the inventory search was not justified. Because there was a written departmental policy requiring impoundment of an arrestee's vehicle, the trial judge denied the motion and this appeal was taken.

RULING: The appellate court ruled that the inventory search violated the fourth amendment because the car was improperly impounded to begin with. Even though there was a written inventory search policy and it was followed by the officers, the state provided no evidence that the vehicle needed to be impounded. The vehicle was legally parked in a parking lot and there was no testimony that it was in danger of creating a hazard to the public or of being stolen. As the Court noted, the existence of a written inventory policy is not enough – there must also be some valid reason to impound the vehicle in the first place.

COMMENT: Don’t use inventory as the basis for a vehicle search unless two criteria are met: (1) your agency has a written inventory policy, and (2) you can articulate a specific reason the vehicle needed to be impounded. If you don’t have such a reason, you may be able to search only if another warrant exception is available, such as a search incident to arrest. (In Williams’ case, that would not have been available since he apparently was arrested after parking and leaving the car.)

Steve Hurm
Regional Legal Advisor
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Tallahassee and Pensacola Regional Operations Centers

Officers should consult with their agency legal advisors to confirm the interpretation provided in this Update and to determine to what extent the case discussed will impact their activities.

For Further Information Contact:
Steve Brady
Regional Legal Advisor
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
Orlando Regional Operations Center