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Evidence of Drugs Found in Search of Car After Arrest Suppressed

The defendant was indicted on three counts of drug trafficking, drug possession, and possession of criminal tools.  He moved to suppress evidence of drugs that the police found in a backpack in the trunk of his car after they pulled him over for failing to stop at an accident.  The trial court granted the motion to suppress and the court of appeals agreed.  The evidence was excluded from trial, making it nearly impossible for the prosecution to prove their case.

The case happened like this.  The defendant was driving his car and was struck by another car in the rear.   The defendant did not stop and was later arrested for a “hit skip,” or leaving the scene of an accident.  Because the defendant was arrested, the police had his vehicle towed to a local storage area pursuant to local police policy.  At trial, the officer explained that they tow vehicles in “[a] high majority of cases” when a person is placed under arrest because at that point, the police department is “responsible for the vehicle.”

The police then conducted the inventory search of the vehicle, where they found a backpack inside the trunk containing “a decent quantity of oxycodone, and also a bag of marijuana, and a drug scale with marijuana residue.”

At trial, the defendant conceded that the officers could search his trunk pursuant to an inventory search, but argued that the permissible search did not extend to a search of the backpack because there was no routine police policy permitting such a search.

Generally, an inventory search of a lawfully-impounded vehicle is an exception to the general prohibition against warrantless searches. To satisfy constitutional requirements, the inventory search must be conducted in good faith and “in accordance with reasonable standardized procedure(s) or established routine.”  While those procedures need not be in writing, the state must show that the police department has a standardized, routine policy, and that the officer’s conduct conformed to that policy.

If, during a valid inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle, a law-enforcement official discovers a closed container, the container may only be opened as part of the inventory process if there is a standardized policy or practice specifically governing the opening of such containers.

In this case, the decision to conduct the inventory search of the defendant’s car was made in accordance with standardized procedures of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.  But, to justify the opening of closed containers encountered during the inventory search, some specific policy must also exist that regulates the opening of containers found during the authorized inventory search.

The local East Cleveland police department’s written policy required arresting or impounding officers to conduct “an inventory of the contents” of the vehicle being impounded. But this policy clearly did not address how the officers should handle closed containers within a vehicle that is being impounded.

Despite the officers’ testimonies to the contrary, the inventory search was not done under the specific guidelines of a written policy that permits the opening of a closed container within a vehicle.  Although the East Cleveland Police Department had a reasonable policy and procedure in place governing inventory searches in general, that policy was not enough to justify the opening of a closed container found during an inventory search.  “Rather, some articulated policy must also exist which regulates the opening of containers found during the authorized inventory search.”

The motion to suppress was granted and none evidence of drugs found in the vehicle were admissible at trial.

State v. Hullum, 2013-Ohio-1448

If you are facing a drug possession or other charge stemming from items found in your vehicle during a traffic stop, talk to an Ohio criminal defense attorney today.