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Ohio Supreme Court: Policy of Inventory Search Upon Arrest Does Not Empower Police to Retrieve Property from Area Protected by Fourth Amendment

by Dale Chappell

Evidence retrieved from a purse unlawfully removed from a vehicle after an arrest violated the Fourth Amendment, despite the existence of a police department policy allowing the search of the purse under the circumstances, the Supreme Court of Ohio held on January 16, 2018.

When an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper stopped Jamie Banks-Harvey for speeding and found she had an outstanding warrant, he placed her in custody and secured her in his patrol car. The owner of the vehicle she was driving was a passenger and refused to allow police to search his vehicle. Nevertheless, the trooper entered the vehicle, retrieved Banks-Harvey’s purse, and searched it on the hood of his car. In the purse, he found needles and what appeared to be drugs. A local police officer on the scene mentioned that he may have seen a capsule in the vehicle. The officer then searched the vehicle, finding clear capsules and a needle. After the search, the owner was allowed to leave with his car. Banks-Harvey remained in custody.

Banks-Harvey was charged with felony possession of drugs and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia based on the items found in her purse. When she filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing the search had violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the trial court denied her motion, concluding that the local officer had probable cause to search the vehicle based on his observation of drugs in the car and that her purse would inevitably have been found during that search. Banks-Harvey then pleaded no contest and received community control and other sanctions. She timely appealed.

The Court of Appeals upheld the denial of Banks-Harvey’s motion to suppress on the basis that the retrieval of her purse was done pursuant to a standard Ohio State Highway Patrol policy requiring that her property be taken to jail with her and that an inventory search of the purse was therefore allowed. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear Banks-Harvey’s appeal.

The question before the Ohio Supreme Court was whether the warrantless entry into the vehicle to retrieve Banks-Harvey’s purse violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on warrantless searches. The Court ruled that it did.

The Fourth Amendment provides “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” without a warrant. Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution provides the same protection.

In Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court held that warrantless searches are “per se unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment—except under “specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” One of these exceptions is when police conduct an “inventory search” of an arrestee’s property on them at the time of the arrest because the police are responsible for the items, and it helps to guard against claims of theft. When a defendant challenges whether a search fits under an exception to the Fourth Amendment, the burden is on the government to show the exception applies.

The question here, the Court stated, was not whether the purse was taken from the car under police policy, but whether the policy justified the warrantless retrieval of the purse from the car. If not, then the purse was unlawfully obtained. Because neither the purse nor the vehicle that contained the purse came into police custody as a result of Banks-Harvey’s arrest, the trooper retrieved the purse “from a place that is protected under the Fourth Amendment [the vehicle]” and was therefore an unlawful seizure, the Court determined. Thus, the search of the purse did not constitute an inventory search exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

The Court acknowledged the fact that had Banks-Harvey asked the trooper to get her purse from the car, or if she had the purse on her at the time of the arrest, he would have had the right to search it. “A law-enforcement policy that an arrestee’s personal effects go with them to the jail, does not, by itself, authorize an officer to retrieve the arrestee’s personal effects from a place that is protected under the Fourth Amendment,” the Court held.

The Supreme Court also rejected the State’s argument that the evidence in the purse would inevitably have been found during the vehicle search by the local officer and that the officer had acted in “good faith” on the belief that his conduct was lawful.

The purpose of suppressing evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment is to “compel respect for the constitutional guaranty” and to deter future constitutional violations by law enforcement, not to cure the constitutional injury to the defendant, the U.S. Supreme Court instructed in Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206 (1960). This “exclusionary rule,” however, is not warranted unless excluding the evidence would yield “appreciable deterrence” to such future actions, the U.S. Supreme Court has said.

It was only after the trooper had shown the local officer the drugs in the purse that the officer said he was “pretty sure” he saw drugs in the vehicle. Because the local officer had based his decision to search the vehicle on the items found in the unlawfully obtained purse the “inevitable-discovery” exception to the exclusionary rule could not apply, the Ohio Supreme Court said.

The State’s argument that law enforcement acted in “good faith” by relying on the standardized department policy was also rejected by the Court. In United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court held that evidence obtained by an officer who acted on an invalid search warrant could be admitted because he acted on the “good faith belief” that his conduct was lawful.

Department policy provided for the transport (and inventory) of Banks-Harvey’s property with her to the jail. However, that policy did not require or empower law enforcement to intrude into a place protected by the Fourth Amendment to retrieve her property. The trooper could not rely in “good faith” on a policy that did not allow his actions, the Court concluded.

Since Banks-Harvey’s purse was retrieved in violation of the Fourth Amendment and none of the exceptions to a warrantless search applied, the evidence obtained from her purse had to be suppressed, the Ohio Supreme Court held. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and vacated Banks-Harvey’s convictions and sentence. See: State v. Banks-Harvey, 2018-Ohio-201 (2018). 


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Related legal case

State v. Banks-Harvey



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