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New Jersey Supreme Court Holds Inventory Search May Not Serve as Ruse for Investigatory Search

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that police may not use an inventory search as a “ruse” to conduct a broader search to support an arrest, finding that police did not have a valid reason to conduct such a search under the facts present in the case.

When Lori Hummel was asked to take a ride to the police station to clear up some unresolved traffic warrants, she agreed, after being told she would be released once finished. The cops lied. In reality, detectives wanted Hummel brought in as a suspect in a murder they were investigating. Detectives assured Hummel she would be let go in time to pick up her daughter from school. Hours later, she was still there, not allowed to leave.

Hummel said she wanted to call a lawyer. The detective said she was “technically” arrested because of the traffic warrants and could not leave, and he ignored her request for a lawyer.

At some point, a detective took Hummel’s purse, and she protested. The detective said she was “in custody” and began leaving with the purse. “Hopefully that $500 ain’t missing out of there,” she said before he left the room. The detective then emptied her purse and offered to let her find the money. She declined. In his search, the detective found two electronic benefits transfer cards with another name on them. The detective took the purse and its contents and left the room.

Hummel again requested a lawyer and was ignored. She was released that day, but she was arrested three days later and charged with first-degree murder, robbery, and possession of a weapon and drugs.

Hummel moved to suppress the evidence and her statements obtained during the interrogation.

The trial court granted her motion in part, finding that Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), applied to her statements, but not to the evidence. The court also held that the EBT cards were found in plain view during a valid inventory search. Hummel pleaded guilty to reduced charges of first-degree manslaughter and conspiracy to distribute drugs. She was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

On appeal, Hummel renewed her challenge to the evidence and the Appellate Division held that the inventory search was a warrantless investigatory search and suppressed the EBT cards, and the court ruled that Hummel should be allowed to withdraw her guilty plea. Hummel’s petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court was denied; however, the Court granted the State’s cross-petition for certification.

The U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions protect citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by requiring a search warrant. However, an inventory search incident to arrest is an exception to the warrant requirement. To apply, the State bears the burden to show the exception is applicable.

An inventory search serves a three-fold purpose: (1) protection of the inventoried property, (2) protecting the police from false property claims, and (3) protecting the police from dangerous contraband. South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976). Still, an inventory search is a “search” and must be “reasonable” under the Constitution. In State v. Mangold, 414 A.2d 1312 (N.J. 1980), the New Jersey Supreme Court created a two-step inquiry to determine the propriety of an inventory search. First is whether the impoundment of the property was justified, and second is whether the inventory was legal. The search in any case should be “no more intensive than reasonably necessary” to serve its purpose, the Mangold Court instructed.

In the present case, the State first argued that the detective removed the purse for “safety concerns.” The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected this argument. Hummel was not under arrest before the detective grabbed her purse, the Court said, and she was permitted to rummage through it several times in front of the detectives during questioning. The detective only removed the purse when Hummel began asking for a lawyer. The State also argued that the inventory search was valid because of Hummel’s “threat” of theft of the money. The Court rejected this, too, noting that the detective’s search was not limited to only the money. Thus, the Court concluded that the purported inventory search failed the first Mangold factor.

The Court also concluded that the search failed the second Mangold factor, i.e., whether the search was conduct pursuant to routine police procedures. “Law enforcement may not use inventory searches as a ruse for general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence,” the Court explained. The State further conceded there was no formal police department policy for inventory searches, and the detectives merely “improvised” the search. Searches conducted “in the absence of standardized practices are unlikely to satisfy the inventory search warrant exception,” the Court admonished.

Accordingly, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s judgment upholding suppression of the EBT card evidence and remanded to permit Hummel to raise the issues she preserved before the PCR court or withdraw her guilty plea to continue before the trial court. See: State v. Hummel, 179 A.3d 366 (N.J. 2018). 

 

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State v. Hummel




 

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