With certain exceptions, the police must obtain a warrant before they search a motor vehicle. One exception is the inventory search of a motor vehicle after the arrest of the driver of the vehicle.
In Commonwealth v Crowley-Chester, the Court of Appeals reversed a judge’s ruling of suppression of a loaded firearm discovered by the police during an inventory search of the automobile in which the defendant had been a passenger. The defendant’s companion was in the driver’s seat when two police officers noticed the car next to a vacant lot with its engine running and its lights off” at 3:00 A.M. The officers noticed that the defendant/passenger quickly moved his left hand between the center console in an apparent attempt to conceal a dark-colored object in his hand. One of the officers saw a silver folding-blade knife in the center cup holder and ordered the defendant and driver out of the car. As they did so, the driver dropped a substance that looked like crack cocaine. The officers arrested the driver who requested that they allow the passenger(defendant) to drive the car away, but the defendant did not have a driver’s license. The officers then impounded the car and conducted an inventory search, pursuant to the written police policy that included closed containers. They then discovered a gun in a backpack that belonged to the defendant.
The Appeals Court reversed the suppression order, noting that the judge applied the wrong standard for assessing the basis of the impounding and inventory of the Honda: whether the police actions were necessary. The the proper inquiry is whether the police actions were reasonable in the circumstances. The Court went on to clarify reasonableness: There are two rationales that may justify an impoundment and subsequent inventory. One rationale involves public safety. The second involves the risk of property damage to a vehicle left parked on a street and possible claims against the police for potential damage to it if left unattended. In this case both justifications applied: The police had a reasonable basis to be concerned there were more weapons and drugs in the car, and the car itself might be subject to theft or vandalism in this high crime area.
The outcomes of suppression motions such as this depend on very specific facts. If one fact changes, the court’s decision could be very different.