Warrantless Search of Defendant’s Truck Did Not Fall Within Scope of Inventory Search Exception

United States v. Anderson (9th Cir., May 2, 2024, No. 20-50345) 2024 WL 1920298

Warrantless searches by law enforcement for inventory purposes

Summary: Law enforcement may conduct warrantless inventory searches of impounded vehicles only if they are motivated by administrative purposes, and not solely by investigatory purposes. Here, an officer’s failure to comply with governing administrative procedures is relevant in assessing the officer’s motivation for conducting an inventory search.

An officer’s failure to comply compliance with department policy governing inventory searches is part of the totality of circumstances properly considered in determining whether a search satisfies the requirements of the inventory-search exception to the warrant requirement. The deputies who searched Anderson’s truck acted solely for investigatory reasons, so the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress.

Facts of the traffic stop

A San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD) deputy noticed Anderson’s truck traveling in a high-crime area with a partially obstructed license plate in violation of California Vehicle Code § 5201. The deputy turned on his overhead lights to initiate a traffic stop, but Anderson accelerated. The deputy called for backup, and Anderson ultimately pulled into a residential driveway and got out of his truck. Believing that Anderson was trying to flee, the deputy confronted him at gunpoint. Soon after, a second deputy arrived and handcuffed Anderson. Anderson said that his driver’s license was expired. Dispatch confirmed that Anderson’s license was expired and informed the deputies that Anderson was a career criminal. The deputies remarked that Anderson had a lot of money in his wallet and questioned why he had gloves and why his truck was wet.

Anderson repeatedly told the deputies that they could not search his truck. But the deputies responded that they had to tow and inventory his truck because he did not have a valid license.

During the purported inventory search, a loaded handgun under Anderson’s driver’s seat was found, and the deputies arrested Anderson for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The record indicates that between three and seven minutes elapsed from when the first deputy initiated the stop to when the gun was found.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department procedure governing impounding and inventorying vehicles.

The SBCSD Manual directs that deputies “shall[ ] [c]omplete two (2) CHP 180 forms …, including an inventory of any personal property contained within the vehicle.” (Emphasis added.) The form requires deputies to record details about the ownership of the vehicle, the condition of the vehicle, and the towing company used. It also has a separate section entitled: “REMARKS (list property, tools, vehicle damage, arrests).”

The second deputy stayed at the scene to complete the CHP 180 Form after the first deputy transported Anderson to jail. The second deputy detailed the condition of the truck, including, for example, that it had front and rear seats, an ignition key, and a battery and that the tires were “worn.” He also noted the registered owner and the towing company. But even though various items of personal property in addition to the gun was contained in the truck, the “REMARKS” section of the form stated only:

Veh pulled over for obstructed plate. Driver found to have expired CDL. Upon inventory search firearm located. Driver is convicted felon. Veh pulled into driveway to res. Owner of res. doesn’t know driver[.] Veh has misc. scratches & dents 360°, damage to pass. door and tailgate.

The deputy did not list Anderson’s other personal property that included: (1) two pairs of Ray-Ban sunglasses, (2) an iPhone cord, (3) an Android phone charger, (4) a bottle of cologne, (5) a watch, (6) an audio speaker, and (7) tools. The deputy took photographs of the inside of the truck that showed some of Anderson’s personal property, and the police report documented that a compact disc, gun, holster, and ammunition were found in the truck. But neither the photographs nor the police report was referenced or incorporated into the vehicle inventory form. SBCSD’s procedure does not allow personal property to be inventoried by photographs.


The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. To meet this standard, law enforcement must generally obtain a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a search. The ‘warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions.’ ” Lange, 141 S. Ct. at 2017.

Vehicles are commonly impounded as part of law enforcement’s “community caretaking functions.” South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 368 (1976). “The authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.” Id. at 369, 96 S.Ct. 3092. Inventory searches of impounded vehicles is a “well-defined exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.” Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 371 (1987).

A proper policy governing inventory searches should be designed to produce an inventory, and if the policy gives officers the ability to exercise discretion, the Fourth Amendment requires that the exercise of such discretion be based on concerns related to the purposes of an inventory search. Officers relying on a standard procedure to justify a search must not “act[ ] in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation.” Bertine, 479 U.S. at 372.

Here, the deputies’ recording of a single item used as evidence, despite SBCSD’s procedure requiring that they inventory “any personal property contained within the vehicle” was a material deviation from SBCSD’s standard inventory procedure,and the “inventory” that they produced was incapable of serving the non-investigative purposes of protecting an owner’s personal property and protecting officers against accusations of theft or loss of an owner’s property, the deputies acted for purely investigatory reasons.

The search of Anderson’s truck was not for administrative purpose

The deputies decided to impound Anderson’s truck because he did not have a valid license. Before the search began, the deputies had discovered what they viewed as a “[l]ot of … money” in Anderson’s wallet (around two hundred dollars) and were suspicious that Anderson had engaged in criminal behavior.

To satisfy the Fourth Amendment, an inventory search must serve administrative, not solely investigatory, goals. Deviation from the governing inventory policy can evidence bad faith or that officers were acting solely for investigative purposes as occurred here.

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only.  Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information.



Contact Information