Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Circuit Affirms Inventory Search into Closed Containers

In United States v. Mundy, 2010 WL 3547435 (3d. Cir. Sept. 14, 2010), the court held that (1) the city police department's vehicle stop and impoundment guidelines provided sufficiently standardized criteria regulating scope of permissible inventory search, including searches of closed containers; (2) the officer's reliance on the guidelines was not a pretext for an investigatory search of vehicle.

Mundy was stopped for turning without using a turn signal and for window tinting. He was stopped less than 1,000 feet from a high school. Mundy was unable to locate documentation for the vehicle, and neither a check on the VIN or the license plate number produced a record of an owner. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles reported no registration information. Mundy was placed in the patrol car and a tow truck was called. One of the officers began to search the interior of the vehicle and, using a key Mundy provided, opened the locked trunk. The only items in the trunk were a tool kit and a gray plastic bag containing a closed shoebox. The officer removed the shoebox and opened it. Inside, he found a brown paper lunch bag and two clear plastic zip-locked bags filled with a substance that appeared to be cocaine. Inside the paper lunch bag were four more clear plastic zip-locked bags, also containing a substance that appeared to be cocaine. The officer replaced the items, closed the trunk of the vehicle, placed Mundy under arrest, and recovered $1,107 in cash from his person. The officers then notified narcotics agents. They did not complete a Towing Report listing the items found during the search.

At the hearing on Mundy’s motion to suppress, the officer testified that he found the cocaine during a routine inventory search of Mundy's car. Philadelphia police policy provides that before a vehicle is towed, its contents must be inventoried in order to protect the police from claims of missing property and damage. Mundy argued that the officers did not have probable cause to search the vehicle, and that the inventory search policy did not sufficiently regulate the officers' discretion with respect to closed containers found in the vehicle. The District Court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the search was conducted pursuant to a valid inventory search in accordance with departmental policy.

The Third Circuit affirmed, holding that the City police department's vehicle stop and impoundment guidelines, which implemented impoundment provisions of state Vehicle Code, provided sufficiently standardized criteria regulating the scope of inventory searches of automobiles, including closed containers found inside, notwithstanding that the policy did not specifically mention closed containers. The standardized criteria could adequately regulate the opening of closed containers discovered during inventory searches without using the words “closed container” or equivalent terms because the policy explicitly set out its objectives to protect owner's property and shield officers from claims of loss or damage, and sufficiently regulated the scope of the search.

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