Inventory Searches and Impoundment of Motor Vehicles

As part of the community care taking function, police departments frequently impound motor vehicles for reasons other than law enforcement. Motor vehicle accidents may leave vehicles in a spot where they block traffic or constitute a danger to the driving public. Also, improperly parked vehicles are sometimes removed from the highway for public safety reasons. Motor vehicles are also impounded by the police for law enforcement purposes. The vehicles may be unregistered or uninsured. They may contain evidence of a crime or the car itself may be connected to illegal activity. Police routinely conduct an inventory search of a motor vehicle after it is taken into custody.

The inventory search is conducted for multiple reasons. First, the police have an obligation to protect the owner’s property while the vehicle remains in police custody. Police departments also need to protect themselves against unwarranted claims or disputes over lost, damaged, or stolen property. The US Supreme Court has viewed inventory searches as a result of a lawful impoundment of a motor vehicle to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. This is, therefore, another valid exception to the warrant requirement and constitutes a valid warrantless search under the Constitution.

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