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New York Court Reverses Defendant’s Conviction Based on Police Officers’ Purported “Inventory Search”

Recently, we conducted a suppression hearing in New York County (Manhattan) Criminal Court, in a DWI case where the Court suppressed evidence that was found pursuant to an inventory search.  Courts are increasingly scrutinizing inventory searches.  In July, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York forgery case discussing whether the police officers’ search of the defendant’s vehicle was legal. Ultimately, the court concluded that the search was not a valid inventory search, and reversed the defendant’s conviction.

Under New York criminal law, most searches must be supported by a warrant. However, there are exceptions to this general rule. One exception is the inventory search. An inventory search is when a police officer searches a person’s car after conducting a valid arrest. The justification for the inventory-search exception is that inventory searches serve three purposes:

  1. They protect the owner’s belongings;
  2. The protect police from claims of lost, stolen, or vandalized property; and
  3. The protect police and other from hazards that may be inside the vehicle.

Courts have held that inventory searches must be “both reasonable and conducted pursuant to established police agency procedures that are designed to meet the legitimate objectives of the search while limiting the discretion of the officer in the field.” Also, courts have held that while incriminating evidence may be discovered during an inventory search, the discovery of evidence cannot be the basis for a search.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was pulled over for a traffic stop. After determining that the passenger of the vehicle had a warrant out for his arrest and that the driver’s license was suspended, the officer decided to tow the car. Before the tow truck arrived, the officer searched the vehicle, finding several credit cards that were not in the defendant’s name. The cards were later determined to be forged.

The prosecution attempted to justify the officer’s search of the vehicle based on a valid inventory search. However, the court rejected this argument, noting that the officer began the search before the tow truck arrived, and could not offer an explanation as to why that was the case. Additionally, the prosecution failed to present the tow and impound report. The court noted that the officer’s statements were contradictory regarding where he claimed to find the defendant’s wallet. As a result, the court determined that the prosecution failed to satisfy its burden to show that the search was a valid inventory search. Thus, the defendant’s motion to suppress was granted.

Have You Been Arrested after a Questionable Search?

If you have recently been arrested after police searched you, your vehicle, or your home, the evidence found as a result of that search may have been obtained in violation of your constitutional rights. If so, all evidence seized as a result of that search must be suppressed by the court. At the New York criminal defense law firm of Tilem & Associates, we represent clients who are facing all types of serious crimes, including New York gun crimes and drug offenses. We have a proven track record of success, and take our role in defending your freedom seriously. To learn more about how we can help you defend against the charges you are facing, call 877-377-8666 to schedule a free consultation today.