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Kansas Supreme Court Rules Fourth Amendment Violation Where Purported Inventory Search Was Performed in Absence of Standard Policy

by Richard Resch

The Supreme Court of Kansas held the warrantless search of defendant’s purse and wallet following a traffic accident violated her Fourth Amendment rights because the search wasn’t performed in accordance with an established departmental policy governing inventory searches and thus that exception to the warrant requirement is inapplicable.

Police officers discovered Julia Evans trapped inside her car following a single-vehicle accident. She was reportedly “in pain and distraught,” but she refused an ambulance. Regardless, one was only minutes away, and the attending officer, Sergeant Haaga, knew that emergency personnel would have to extract her. Haaga reported that he didn’t detect the “smell of alcohol, marijuana, or anything else emanating from the car.”

As paramedics were placing Evans in the ambulance, Haaga asked them to “ask her where her driver’s license was, so [he] could obtain that, for the accident report.” They never got back to him before the ambulance departed. Afterward, Haaga spotted a purse and woman’s wallet next to it in the car. According to Haaga, in these situations, it’s his practice to remove anything of value from the vehicle for safekeeping prior to it being towed to the wrecker yard.

Haaga took custody of both items and looked through the purse ostensibly to look for Evans’ license. He didn’t find it, so he then looked inside the wallet. He opened a zippered compartment and found “a small plastic baggie with the white crystal substance in it,” which he suspected to be meth. He eventually found her license. He testified that he was not investigating a crime while searching the purse and wallet. Rather, he and the other officer on scene, Deputy Longbine, claimed that they were only investigating the accident and needed her license to process the paperwork.

Evans was charged with unlawful possession of meth and possession of drug paraphernalia. She filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search, which the district court judge granted. He ruled that the search of both the purse and wallet was performed without a warrant and that none of the exceptions to the warrant requirement applied. The State appealed. The Kansas Supreme Court transferred the case from the Court of Appeals upon its own motion and affirmed the district court’s ruling.

The Court began its analysis by noting Evans’ motion to suppress is based on the Fourth Amendment (and not on any state constitution claims). It explained that the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment extend to a person’s vehicle and items within it, but “the interior of an automobile is not subject to the same expectations of privacy that exist with respect to one’s home.” New York v. Cass, 475 U.S. 106 (1986). The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed that the guiding principle of any Fourth Amendment analysis is reasonableness. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973).

Absent a warrant, a seizure or search of property is unreasonable, unless the government can establish that one of the “specifically established and well-delineated exceptions” to the warrant requirement applies. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009). One of these established exceptions is the “community caretaking function” of police when investigating vehicle accidents “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433. Another is the “inventory search” for the purpose of protecting property while in the custody of law enforcement, protect law enforcement from claims of theft, or protect law enforcement from possible danger. South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976).

However, according to the Kansas Supreme Court, neither line of cases permits a warrantless search simply because police had some legitimate caretaking role or duty. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court requires police to conduct searches under either of the exceptions in accordance with an established standard departmental policy. Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990). The Wells Court explained that a standardized policy regulating “the opening of containers found during inventory searches is based on the principle that an inventory search must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” In Wells, the Court held “that absent such a policy, the instant search was not sufficiently regulated to satisfy the Fourth Amendment.”

In the present case, the State argued that the “community caretaking function” together with the “inventory search” exceptions to the warrant requirement apply, but the Court rejected that argument.

The Kansas Supreme Court said there is no evidence that the police departments involved in this case had standard procedures in place governing inventory searches of seized vehicles or the opening of closed containers found in such vehicles as mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Haaga testified that “it’s my practice, when there’s something of possible value in the car, I like to collect it for safekeeping….” The Kansas Supreme Court observed that an individual police officer’s personal practice does not meet the constitutional standards for a valid inventory search. Thus, the Court held that the State failed to establish that “the search of Evans’ purse and wallet fits a well-delineated exception to the warrant requirement.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s judgment that the evidence seized during the search of Evans’ purse and wallet must be suppressed and remanded the case for further proceedings. See: State v. Evans, 2018 Kan. LEXIS 580 (2018).  

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