Inventory Search Case Law

Inventory searches are supported by a threefold rationale: (1) to protect an owner's property while it is in the custody of the police; (2) to insure against claims of lost, stolen, or vandalized property; (3) to guard the police from danger." (Colorado v. Bertine, supra, 479 U.S. at p. 372 107 S. Ct. at p. 741; South Dakota v. Opperman (1976) 428 U.S. 364, 369 96 S. Ct. 3092, 3097, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1000; Whren v. United States (1996) 517 U.S. 806, 811, fn. 1 116 S. Ct. 1769, 1773, 135 L. Ed. 2d 89.) Inventory searches must be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. (Colorado v. Bertine (1987) 479 U.S. 367, 371, 375-376 107 S. Ct. 738, 742-743, 93 L. Ed. 2d 739.) The police may exercise discretion in opening containers during inventory searches provided that discretion is exercised according to "standardized criteria" (id. at p. 376 107 S. Ct. at p. 743) or "established routine" (Illinois v. Lafayette (1983) 462 U.S. 640, 648 103 S. Ct. 2605, 2610-2611, 77 L. Ed. 2d 65) based on some standard other than suspected criminal activity. (Florida v. Wells (1990) 495 U.S. 1, 4 110 S. Ct. 1632, 1635, 109 L. Ed. 2d 1, citing Bertine, supra, 479 U.S. at p. 375 107 S. Ct. at pp. 742-743.) "A police officer may be allowed sufficient latitude to determine whether a particular container should or should not be opened in light of the nature of the search and characteristics of the container itself." (Florida v. Wells, supra, 495 U.S. at p. 4. 110 S. Ct. at p. 1635.) For instance, an inventory policy permitting police officers to open closed containers when unable to ascertain the contents from examining the container's exterior would not violate the Fourth Amendment. (Ibid.) The standardized procedure or established routine authorizing the inventory search need not be written. (People v. Steeley (1989) 210 Cal. App. 3d 887, 889 258 Cal. Rptr. 699.) However, "an inventory search must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence." ( Florida v. Wells, supra, 495 U.S. at p. 4 110 S. Ct. at p. 1635.)