Context:

Donald Opperman left his car illegally parked in Vermillion, South Dakota. The car was ticketed multiple times and after a few days, the car was impounded. According to procedure, the officers take inventory of objects and belongings left in the vehicle. While taking the inventory, an officer found marijuana in the car. Opperman was arrested when he came in to claim his property. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence due to a Fourth Amendment infringement, but the trial court denied his motion. On appeal, the Supreme Court of South Dakota reversed the conviction, ruling that the search was unreasonable and violated Opperman’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and ruled against Opperman. The court said that because the vehicle was legally impounded, police have the right to take an inventory of the contents of the car without obtaining a warrant. As these inventory procedures are designed to protect the rights of the owner, protect their property, and protect police from any unknown danger that lies within the car, the search of the car is permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Justice Powell wrote a concurring opinion, arguing that these searches are permissible so long as they are not motivated by officers seeking to find evidence. The dissenting justices argued that an unwarranted search of the car is a Fourth Amendment violation, even if the search is used for inventory purposes.

South Dakota v. Opperman

428 US 364 (1976)

(The Vehicle Inventory Case)


Facts:

Local ordinances prohibit parking in certain areas of downtown Vermillion, S.D., between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. During the early morning hours of December 10, 1973, a Vermillion police officer observed respondent's unoccupied vehicle illegally parked in the restricted zone. At approximately 3 a.m., the officer issued an overtime parking ticket and placed it on the car's windshield. The citation warned:

"Vehicles in violation of any parking ordinance may be towed from the area."

At approximately 10 o'clock on the same morning, another officer issued a second ticket for an overtime parking violation. These circumstances were routinely reported to police headquarters, and after the vehicle was inspected, the car was towed to the city impound lot.

From outside the car at the impound lot, a police officer observed a watch on the dashboard and other items of personal property located on the back seat and back floorboard. At the officer's direction, the car door was then unlocked and, using a standard inventory form pursuant to standard police procedures, the officer inventoried the contents of the car, including the contents of the glove compartment, which was unlocked. There he found marihuana contained in a plastic bag. All items, including the contraband, were removed to the police department for safekeeping. During the late afternoon of December 10, respondent appeared at the police department to claim his property. The marihuana was retainedby police.   

South Dakota v. Opperman 428 US 364 (1976) 

South Dakota v. Opperman 428 US 364 (1976) 

South Dakota v. Opperman 428 US 364 (1976)

Question:

Whether the search and seizure ofan impounded vehicle isunreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.   

Reasoning:

This Court has traditionally drawn a distinction between automobiles and homes or offices in relation to the Fourth Amendment. Although automobiles are "effects" andthus within the reach of the Fourth Amendment, warrantless examinations of automobiles have been upheld in circumstances in which a search of a home or office would not.

The reason for this well-settled distinction is twofold. First, the inherent mobility of automobiles creates circumstances of such exigency that, as a practical necessity, rigorous enforcement of the warrant requirement is impossible. But the Court has also upheld warrantless searches where no immediate danger was presented that the car would be removed from the jurisdiction. Besides the element of mobility, less rigorous warrant requirements govern because the expectation of privacy with respect to one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office. In discharging their varied responsibilities for ensuring the public safety, law enforcement officials are necessarily brought into frequent contact with automobiles. Automobiles, unlike homes, are subjected to pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls, including periodic inspection and licensing requirements. As an everyday occurrence, police stop and examine vehicles when license plates or inspection stickers have expired, or if other violations, such as exhaust fumes or excessive noise, are noted, or if headlights or other safety equipment are not in proper working order.

In the interests of public safety and as part of what the Court has called "community caretaking functions," automobiles are frequently taken into police custody. Vehicle accidents present one such occasion. To permit the uninterrupted flow of traffic and in some circumstances to preserve evidence, disabled or damaged vehicles will often be removed from the highways or streets at the behest of police engaged solely in caretaking and traffic-control activities. Police will also frequently remove and impound automobiles which violate parking ordinances and which thereby jeopardize both the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. 

When vehicles are impounded, local police departments generally follow a routine practice of securing and inventorying the automobiles' contents. These procedures developed in response to three distinct needs: the protection of the owner's property while it remains in police custody, the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, and the protection of the police from potential danger. In addition, police frequently attempt to determine whether a vehicle has been stolen and thereafter abandoned.

The inventory was conducted only after the car had been impounded for multiple parking violations. The owner, having left his car illegally parked for an extended period, and thus subject to impoundment, was not present to make other arrangements for the safekeeping of his belongings. The inventory itself was prompted by the presence in plain view of a number of valuables inside the car. As in Cady, there is no suggestion whatever that this standard procedure, essentially like that followed throughout the country, was a pretext concealing an investigatory police motive.                  

Justice Burger decides South Dakota v. Opperman

Holding:

Inventories pursuant to standard police procedures are reasonable.

The police procedures followed in this casedid not involve an "unreasonable" searchin violation of the Fourth Amendment.


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Key Takeaway

Routine inventory searches are okay anytime police search and seize vehicles because it 1) protects the property, 2) protects the safety of police, and 3) defends against claims of theft and/or destruction.


Court Syllabus:

After respondent's car had been impounded for multiple parking violations the police, following standard procedures, inventoried the contents of the car. In doing so they discovered marihuana in the glove compartment, for the possession of which respondent was subsequently arrested. His motion to suppress the evidence yielded by the warrantless inventory search was denied, and respondent was thereafter convicted. The State Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the evidence had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth. 

Held: The police procedures followed in this case did not involve an "unreasonable" search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The expectation of privacy in one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office. When vehicles are impounded, police routinely follow caretaking procedures by securing and inventorying the cars' contents. These procedures have been widely sustained as reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. This standard practice was followed here, and there is no suggestion of any investigatory motive on the part of the police.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Burger, joined by Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, Stevens

Concurrence: Powell

Dissent: White

Dissent: Marshall, joined by Brennan, Stewart