Vehicle Impounds: The Reasons, the Rules and (Hopefully) the Release

Aargh! It was a bad scene. The cops impounded your vehicle. Perhaps they hope to find evidence of drugs, guns or other unlawful contraband. Whatever the reasons, you are highly inconvenienced. This guide summarizes the legal landscaping surrounding vehicle impoundment and inventory searches.

WHY DO POLICE IMPOUND PEOPLE’S VEHICLES?

Impoundment of a vehicle is generally permitted under three circumstances: (1) the vehicle itself is evidence of a crime, (2) impoundment is necessary as part of the “community caretaking” function (such as to avoid traffic hazard), or (3) when specifically authorized by traffic regulations. However, the decision to impound must be reasonable, and the burden is on the state to prove reasonableness. Even where impoundment would otherwise be permitted, police have an affirmative duty to explore alternatives to impoundment, including but not limited to legally parking and locking the vehicle or finding an alternate driver. An officer need not exhaust alternatives, but must at least consider the alternatives available before impounding the vehicle.

WHAT IF MY VEHICLE IS INVOLVED IN A CRIME?

When police have probable cause to believe a vehicle is evidence of a crime or was stolen, there is no requirement to consider alternatives to impoundment. Police may seize a vehicle while a warrant is being obtained when there is probable cause to believe the car contains contraband or evidence of a crime. Luckily, any evidence found as a result of an impermissible impoundment is inadmissible and must be suppressed.

ARE THEY SEARCHING MY VEHICLE WHILE IT’S IMPOUNDED?

Probably, yes. They shall perform an “Inventory Search.” The goal of an inventory search is (1) to protect the owner’s property, (2) to protect police against false claims of theft or property damage, and (3) to protect police against any possible danger. The scope of inventory searches is limited to that which is necessary to achieve those goals. Absent manifest necessity (such as signs indicating the presence of dangerous materials), police cannot search the contents of closed luggage or a locked trunk.

CAN I STOP THEM FROM SEARCHING MY VEHICLE WHEN IT’S IMPOUNDED?

Probably not. An officer need not seek the consent of the vehicle’s driver or owner prior to performing an inventory search. However, such searches may only be carried out within strict limits. The inventory search is not investigatory in nature, but rather an administrative or caretaking function; however, evidence found during a proper inventory search is admissible.

WHAT ARE MY DEFENSES?

Pretextual searches are unlawful. In these cases, an inventory search carried out as a pretext for an investigatory search does not qualify for the inventory search exception. If you’re concerned that law enforcement officers will search your vehicle after it’s impounded, then hire a competent attorney to either stop the search before it happens of suppress any evidence the police find during the search. Attached is some relevant case law on the subject. Please contact me if you have any questions. Good luck!

HAILEY’S LAW

For more information on vehicle impounds regarding motorists facing drug or alcohol related driving offenses, please read my Legal Guide titled, “HAILEY’S LAW: MANDATORY IMPOUND OF VEHICLES FOR DRIVERS FACING DUI CHARGES”

Additional resources provided by attorney Alexander Ransom: