Category Archives: Inventory Searches

State v. Froehrich: Unlawful Inventory Search

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In State v. Froehlich, the WA Court of Appeals Division II upheld the suppression of methampetamine found in a vehicle because the defendant’s car was unlawfully searched.

BACKGROUND

Ms. Froehlich was driving her car. She collided with a pickup truck waiting at a stop sign. After the collision, the car came to rest on the right shoulder of the highway. It was not obstructing traffic. A Washington State Patrol Trooper arrived at the scene. By this time, Froehlich was seated in the pickup truck that she had hit.

Ms. Froehlich eventually left the scene in an ambulance after talking with police at the scene. One trooper followed her to the hospital to do sobriety testing, and she was not arrested. However, the trooper at the scene of the accident decided to impound her car. At the scene, he performed an inventory search of the vehicle which also included the search of Froerich’s purse which she left inside the car. He found methamphetamine.

Ms. Froehrich was charged with Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance With Intent to Manufacture or Deliver. Froehlich filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine, arguing in part that the Trooper had no reason to impound the car and failed to consider reasonable alternatives to impoundment. The trial court granted the motion, suppressed the evidence and ultimately dismissed the charges. The State appealed.

ANALYSIS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that the impoundment was not lawful and therefore the search was not lawful because (1) under the community caretaking exception, the State did not prove that the impounding officer considered whether Froehlich, her spouse, or her friends were available to remove the vehicle; and (2) even though there was statutory authority for impoundment, the State failed to prove that the impounding officer considered all reasonable alternatives.

The Court reasoned that both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit warrantless searches unless an exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One exception to the warrant requirement is a non-investigatory, good faith inventory search of an impounded vehicle. Law enforcement may lawfully impound a vehicle for three reasons: (1) as evidence of a crime, (2) under the community caretaking function, or (3) when the driver has committed a traffic offense for which the legislature has expressly authorized impoundment. Even if one of these reasons exists, however, an officer may impound a vehicle only if there are no reasonable alternatives.

Here, the Trooper’s impoundment of Froehlich’s car was not lawful under the community caretaking function because there were reasonable alternatives to impoundment. Here, the Trooper never asked Froehlich about arranging to have someone else remove the car as an alternative to impoundment, and the State presented no evidence that the Trooper considered Froehlich’s ability to arrange for the car’s removal.

CONCLUSION

Because Richardson unlawfully impounded the vehicle, his seizure of methamphetamine from Froehlich’s purse was unlawful.

My opinion? Good decision. Very simple, straightforward and correct analysis. As usual, I’m extremely impressed with Division II’s handling of search and seizure issues, especially when it comes to vehicle searches. Here, it’s clear that police officers cannot go about impounding people’s vehicles and searching through belongings when reasonable legal alternatives exist.

Backpack Searches When Jailed

In State v. Dunham, the WA Court of Appeals Division II decided that a warrantless search of a suspect’s locked backpack pocket was a lawful inventory search where the defendant was booked into jail, a search of his person produced knives, the backpack was to be logged into the jail’s temporary storage area and the officer felt knives on the outside of the backpack.

On January 29, 2014, Sergeant Gwen Carrell of the Chehalis Police Department responded to a reported shoplifting at a local department store. Upon arrival, Sgt. Carrell met with loss prevention officers. They told Sgt. Carrell that defendant Jason Dunham had multiple knives in his backpack and that they had removed the backpack from Dunham’s reach. Sgt. Carrell placed Dunham in handcuffs for officer safety and searched him for weapons. She located two more knives on Dunham’s person, arrested Dunham for theft and booked him into jail.

Sgt. Carrell searched Dunham’s backpack for items to be logged into the jail’s temporary storage. This is called an inventory search. In short, it is every police department’s policy to inventory items to be held in its storage facility for any dangerous items. As part of this policy, knives are to be kept in secure containers, preventing them from puncturing anything.

Sgt. Carrell used Dunham’s keys to unlock the backpack pocket. She opened the pocket and observed a flashlight, a butane torch, and a glass pipe. What Sgt. Carrell thought was a knife was actually the butane torch. The residue in the glass pipe tested positive for methamphetamine. The State charged Dunham with Possession of a Controlled Substance and Theft in the Third Degree.

Dunham filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during Sgt. Carrell’s search of the locked portion of his backpack pursuant to CrR 3.6, arguing that the search violated his constitutional rights. The trial court denied the motion and ruled that the inventory search was valid. Later, the trial court found him guilty on both counts at a bench trial.

Dunham appealed. He argued that the warrantless search of his backpack’s locked pocket violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. He claims that the search was not a valid inventory search.

Unfortunately for Dunham the Court of Appeals disagreed. First it reasoned that  inventory searches are an exception to the requirement that police have a warrant to search people’s personal property. Second, the Court described the purpose of an Inventory Search:

“The purpose of an inventory search is not to discover evidence of a crime, but to perform an administrative or caretaking function. The principal purposes of an inventory search are to (1) protect the owner’s property, (2) protect the police against false claims of theft by the owner, and (3) protect the police from potential danger. The scope of an inventory search should be limited to those areas necessary to fulfill its purpose.”

Third, the Court reasoned that Officer Carrel’s safety concern about potentially exposed knives in the locked pocket was reasonable based on the facts that (1) several knives were found on Dunham’s person, (2) additional knives were found in the unlocked portion of Dunham’s backpack, (3) one of the knives found in the backpack was unsheathed, and (4) Sgt. Carrell felt what she believed to be another knife in the locked pocket of the backpack. Therefore, a manifest necessity existed for searching the locked portion of the backpack.

Finally, the Court concluded that the inventory search was valid and affirmed Dunham’s conviction:

“Substantial evidence supports the challenged finding of fact. Given the reasonable indication that the locked portion of the backpack contained dangerous items along with Sgt. Carrell’s reasonable fear of being stabbed, we hold that a manifest necessity existed to search No. 46169-2-II 8 inside the locked portion of the backpack. Therefore the trial court’s findings of fact support its conclusion that the inventory search was valid. We affirm Dunham’s conviction.”

My opinion? Search and seizure issues are a HUGE aspect of unlawful possession cases. The legal issues come down to whether the search was lawful, and if not, whether the evidence can be suppressed. Here, the court’s decision appears sound. Under Washington law, officers may search a suspect’s person if they feel “hard and sharp” objects through the outside of a suspect’s clothing. This is done for officer safety. Similarly, Inventory Searches are conducted under the same policy of preserving officer safety. Here, the hard and sharp objects felt through Dunham’s backpack raised a safety concern. Therefore, the search appears lawful.

For more information on Search and Seizure Issues please review my Legal Guide titled, “Search & Seizure: Basic Issues Regarding Their Search for Weapons, Drugs, Firearms and Other Contraband.” There, I provide links to my analysis of Washington cases discussing searches of persons, vehicles, cars and homes. Also, please go the search engine of my Blog if you have specific queries about these issues.

Finally, I am available for free consultations if you face criminal charges involving search and seizure issues.

Good luck!