State v. Green: When Inventory Searches Become Overbroad

The WA Court of Appeals decided that evidence of Identity Theft (receipts) was not admissible when the officer obtained the evidence after searching the defendant’s car during a DUI and Hit & Run investigation.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/684442.pdf

Mr. Green was arrested for DUI after his vehicle struck a pedestrian who later died. After arrest, police searched Mr. Green’s car. They found a paper bag containing numerous receipts. After more investigating,  it was later determined the receipts were evidence of purchases using stolen credit cards. The car was later towed to a police impound lot. The officer began investigating the defendant for theft/fraud charges in addition to the Vehicular Homicide charge. However, the officer’s search warrant was only specific to the Vehicular Homicide charge.

A few days later, the officer obtained a second search warrant to search the car for evidence of fraud and identity theft. Mr. Green moved to suppress the receipts. The state argued the receipts were properly seized pursuant to an inventory search and were admissible pursuant to the independent source doctrine.

Some background is necessary. Under the 4th Amendment to the U.S Constitution and article I section 7 of the Washington Constitution, warrantless searches and seizures are unconstitutional. However one exception to the warrant requirement are Inventory Searches accompanying a lawful vehicle impound. The purpose of an inventory search is to (1) protect the vehicle owner’s property; (2) protect the police against false claims of theft by the owner, and (3) protect the police from potential danger. The direction and scope of an inventory search must be limited to the purpose of justifying the exception. nder the Independent Source Exception, evidence obtained by unlawful governmental action is not suppressed under the exclusionary rule if the evidence was obtained pursuant to a valid search warrant or other lawful means independent of the unlawful action.

In this case, the officer did not find the receipts as part of an inventory search. Stated different, the officer looked in the paper bag but did not consider the receipts to be relevant to the inventory search. Therefore, there was no evidence that he inventoried them. The officer seized the receipts for investigatory purposes on a different matter altogether, namely, the soon-to-be-pending Identity Theft charges.

The Court further reasoned the receipts were not admissible under the Independent Source doctrine because the officer neither found the receipts nor had knowledge of them through an independent source.

My opinion? This was a reasonable, practical approach. In this case, it makes no sense to allow the police to conduct investigations of different crimes other than the one they are already working on, especially if they lack independent evidence to begin with.