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Warrants, warrants, warrants. Who needs them? There are so many delightful exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement that cops can often find a way around the cumbersome process of securing a warrant. All they have to do is pick from a smorgasbord of exceptions, such as: consent, search incident to arrest, exigent circumstances, plain view, Terry stops, probable cause searches, the automobile exception, and inventory searches. Recently, law enforcement’s selection of an inventory search was not a valid menu option according to the Minnesota Court of Appeals in State v. Cochran.
The reasoning behind inventory searches is to protect the police from claims of stolen, lost, or damaged property. Once law enforcement separates an individual from their belongings, they do not want to be held responsible for any claims that they did something to the property. Therefore, when officers arrest someone as part of a traffic stop, they will often conduct an inventory search of the vehicle and document everything they find in it. If the officers find evidence of illegal activity during the search, such as drugs, then it excuses them from obtaining a warrant. But importantly, to be a valid inventory search, the impoundment of the vehicle must be lawful. This threshold matter is where the officers in Cochran ran afoul according to the court of appeals.
In Cochran, officers responded to a scene of an accident between a vehicle and a pedestrian. Upon arrival, the police learned Cochran was driving the vehicle when a passenger began punching him in the head. To escape the madness, Cochran stopped the car and got out of the vehicle. The passenger also exited to follow Cochran, but Cochran quickly got back into the driver’s seat. Not to let the fun stop there, the passenger jumped on top of the vehicle and began punching the windshield. Cochran hit the gas throwing the passenger off of the car. Later, after being treated for injuries, the men were taken to the hospital.
The officers then decided to tow the vehicle, but conducted an inventory search first. The officers discovered two small baggies containing methamphetamine and a locked safe. After securing a warrant for the safe, the police opened it and found additional meth, baggies, and a scale.
On appeal, the prosecution argued impoundment was necessary because the vehicle was a safety hazard, it was not legal to drive, Cochran was not able to make arrangements to have someone pick up the vehicle, and the vehicle was evidence of an ongoing investigation. Thankfully for Cochran, squad videos were in evidence showing exactly where the vehicle was located on the side of the road. The videos also showed traffic moving normally past the scene. The court of appeals watched these videos and was not persuaded by the prosecution or the district court’s order. One of the officers testified that traffic had to serpentine through both lanes of traffic to get through the area. The squad videos showed that statement to be blatantly false.
Further, the court of appeals rebuffed the prosecution’s remaining arguments primarily because the impoundment was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court reasoned that Cochran was never given a chance to make arrangements for someone to pick up the vehicle, the car was not illegally parked, and Cochran was not under arrest.
Inventory searches are a popular exception to the warrant requirement in many criminal cases. But here, the court of appeals did not take kindly inaccurate testimony from an officer and video footage in direct disagreement with a district court’s order.
Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney based in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He was recently named a Rising Star by Minnesota Super Lawyers; the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys named him one of Minnesota’s “Ten Best” Under 40 Attorneys for Client Satisfaction; and he is a member of the National College of DUI Defense. Criminal Defense Attorney St. Paul MN; St. Paul MN Drug Crimes Attorney; and Minneapolis DUI Lawyer. For a free consultation contact us at 651-800-4842 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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