INVENTORY SEARCH NOT VALID WHEN SEIZURE NOT LAWFUL

In Commonwealth v. Abdallah (2016), the SJC affirmed the lower court’s allowance of the defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of an inventory search of his backpack by the police during booking.  In so doing, it found the seizure of the backpack at the time of the defendant’s arrest was unreasonable. The facts are summarized as follows: “After causing a disturbance, the defendant was arrested outside his hotel room … on an outstanding warrant for larceny of $250 or less.” Before transporting the defendant to the police station, the officers made arrangements to leave the defendant’s clothing, computer, and video game system at the hotel’s front desk for safekeeping. “The officers informed the defendant that he would be able to pick up those   belongings … after he was released.”

The  officers also transported  “a small backpack … that the defendant had been carrying on his person.” The police searched the backpack at the station in accordance with the police department’s inventory policy. That search revealed several thousand dollars in cash, glassine bags containing cocaine, and hundreds of Percocet pills. The defendant moved to suppress those items. At the hearing on the motion, one of the officers, when asked why he did not leave the backpack at the hotel along with the rest of the defendant’s property, “responded, ‘I don’t know — that was on his person. I have no idea what was in it, and it’s the way that we always have done it.’” The judge allowed the motion to suppress and the Commonwealth appealed.

In its decision, the SJC stated that where the officers lacked probable cause to seize or search the backpack worn by the defendant at the time of his arrest, and no other exception to the warrant requirement applied, the officers were not authorized to seize the backpack and later search it pursuant to the inventory policy. In this case, where “there was a third party present [the hotel’s front desk clerk] who was willing to take possession of the defendant’s belongings,” “the officers could not reasonably have believed that they needed to seize” the backpack out of concern for public safety or in order to protect the contents of the pack from theft. In the Court’s view, it was unreasonable “for the officers to single out the [backpack] to take to the police station” to be searched.

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