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Warrantless inventory search of vehicle not unreasonable, COA holds

August 17, 2016

Despite a police officer’s failure to strictly follow relevant procedures for completing a written inventory of items found in an impounded car, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed that the warrantless search of the car was not unreasonable.

Robert Weathers was pulled over by Marion County Sheriff’s deputy Onsel Andre because the expiration date on the SUV was obscured. After pulling Weathers over, Andre learned that Weathers did not have a valid driver’s license and was not the owner of the car. He arrested Weathers for driving without a license and asked if someone could retrieve the car since it would block traffic. No one was able to do so within the time frame provided by Andre, so the deputy decided to impound the car. Weathers told Andre there was a handgun in the car, and Andre found it where Weathers said it would be.

Weathers was charged with Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license, elevated to a Level 5 felony based on a prior felony conviction, and Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended, and convicted on both charges. He sought to suppress all evidence stemming from the warrantless search of the car, but that was denied.

On appeal, Weathers maintained that the inventory search was unreasonable. Inventory search of an impounded vehicle is an exception to the warrant requirement, but the state bears the burden of proving the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeals agreed that the decision to impound the car was reasonable because the car would impede traffic.

The judges found that Andre did not comply with the department requirement that he compile a written inventory of all items found in the vehicle. But his failure to do so does not render the search unreasonable, Judge Cale Bradford wrote, citing Whitley v. State, 47 N.E.3d 640, 646 (Ind. Ct. App. 2015).

The purpose of the inventory requirement is to protect both the individual and the deputy. Weathers doesn’t contest the handgun was found in the car where he told the deputy it was located, and Andre could see the gun in plain view.

“Deputy Andre’s apparent failure to complete a written inventory had no bearing on any of these facts. As such, upon review, we are unable to see how Weathers was prejudiced by Deputy Andre’s apparent failure to complete a written inventory of all items found in the vehicle. We are also unconvinced that Deputy Andre’s apparent failure to complete a written inventory of all items found in the vehicle suggests that his rationale for completing the warrantless inventory search was a pretext for completing an unlawful search,” Bradford wrote.

The judges also affirmed there was sufficient evidence to support elevating the handgun charge to a felony because Weathers’ attorney stipulated to the fact he had a prior felony conviction within the statutorily proscribed timeframe.

The case is Robert Weathers v. State of Indiana, 49A04-1601-CR-3.
 

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