Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, every search or seizure by a government agent must be reasonable. In general, searches and seizures are unreasonable and invalid unless based on probable cause and executed pursuant to a warrant. However, certain kinds of searches and seizures are valid as exceptions to the probable cause and warrant requirements. One such exception is an inventory search of an impounded vehicle. Courts have upheld inventory searches of vehicles lawfully in police custody, including searches of the passenger compartment, glove compartment, trunk, engine compartments, and any containers in the vehicle.
After lawfully taking custody of a vehicle, police may conduct a warrantless search of the property to satisfy three purposes: (1) to protect the owner’s property while it is in police custody; (2) to protect the police against claims of lost or stolen property; and (3) to protect the police from dangerous instrumentalities which may be in the vehicle. Thus, where the examination is not made for the purpose of seeking evidence of a crime, but as part of a routine administrative caretaking function, it is not unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. According to the United States Supreme Court, the three foregoing reasons for allowing an inventory of the interior of a car serve a significant interest of both the citizen and the police by protecting the owner’s property.
Although inventory searches are permissible, they must be “reasonable” to pass constitutional muster. An inventory search may only be conducted pursuant to standardized procedures, since officers are not vested with discretion to determine the scope of such a search. Despite this requirement, there is no uniform standard, and the inventory search doctrine, as developed by the United States Supreme Court, has been adapted differently by the various states. Due to demand for clarity of the rule, some state courts have responded by imposing greater privacy restrictions on the federal standard.
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