Inventory Searches and DUI/OVI in Ohio

Search-of-Vehilce-300x200Following a DUI arrest (called ‘OVI’ in Ohio), it is common for an officer to search the suspect’s vehicle before having the vehicle towed.  This ‘inventory search’ is an exception to the general requirement of a search warrant.  For an inventory search to be valid, it must be done in accordance with the policy of the law enforcement agency.  A recent case decided by the Ohio Supreme Court addressed what evidence is necessary to prove the search complied with the law enforcement agency’s policy.

Vehicle Inventory Searches
Before conducting a search, law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant, but there are exceptions to the warrant requirement.  One exception is for inventory searches of automobiles.  Inventory searches are done to protect the owner’s property, to protect the law enforcement agency from claims of damaged or lost property, and to promote officer safety.  For an inventory search to be lawful, the law enforcement agency must have adopted a policy standardizing the procedure for the search, and the officer must conduct the search according to the standardized procedure.  If an inventory search is invalid, any evidence obtained as a result of the search is inadmissible.

When an inventory search is the subject of a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence, the prosecution must prove the search complied with the law enforcement agency’s policy for the search.  But what is sufficient evidence of the agency’s policy?  That issue was addressed in the recent case of State v. Toran.

State v. Toran – Lower Courts
A deputy stopped Toran because the truck Toran was driving displayed a temporary license plate improperly.  The deputy then learned that Toran was driving under a suspended driver’s license.  Although Toran’s truck was legally parked, the deputy decided the truck would be towed.  The deputy then conducted an inventory search of the truck and found a loaded handgun inside the truck.  Toran was charged with Carrying Concealed Weapons, Improperly Handling Firearms in a Motor Vehicle, and Having Weapons While Under Disability.

Toran filed a motion to suppress evidence, and the judge held a hearing on the motion.  At the hearing, the prosecution did not introduce the law enforcement agency’s standardized procedure for inventory searches.  However, the deputy testified the agency’s policy was to do an inventory search when the driver’s license of the vehicle’s driver was under suspension, and he is systematic about doing the search.

The judge overruled the motion to suppress, and Toran was convicted.  Toran appealed to the Court of Appeals.  The appellate court found the search was unreasonable and reversed the conviction.  The prosecution then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

State v. Toran – Ohio Supreme Court
The Ohio Supreme Court addressed the legality of the inventory search.  The Court noted the search must be conducted “in accordance with reasonable standardized procedure[s] or established routine”.  The Court concluded the prosecution was not required to submit the inventory search policy in writing as evidence to establish the existence of such a policy.  The Court observed that other courts have also reached this conclusion.

The Court found the deputy’s testimony (the agency’s policy was to do an inventory search, and he is systematic about doing the search), combined with the body cam video of the search, was sufficient to establish the existence of the agency’s policy.  Accordingly, the Court concluded the inventory search was lawful and reversed the judgment of the appellate court.

Standardized Procedure Not Articulated
I am not persuaded the inventory search was lawful.  First, the deputy did not articulate the agency’s standardized procedure for conducting inventory searches.  He simply said the policy was to conduct an inventory search.  Consequently, there was no way to evaluate whether the deputy’s search complied with the standardized procedure.  Second, an agency’s written policy should be introduced as evidence so an agent of the executive branch cannot make an unsubstantiated claim of complying with the policy.

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