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In a Suppression Hearing the Court Finds that an Inventory Search Was Not Conducted Properly – People v. Espinoza, 174 A.D.3d 1062 (N.Y. App. Div. 2019)

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In a case where the defendant was charged with 75 counts of possession of criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree and criminal possession of a forgery device, during a suppression hearing the defendant moved to have the physical evidence seized from his trunk  suppressed due to an illegal inventory search.

An inventory search is a warrantless search that the police are permitted to conduct when in connection with lawfully impounding a vehicle. In order for any evidence collected in an inventory search to be admissible, the inventory search must be reasonable in nature and must be conducted according to established police procedure designed to meet legitimate objectives.  The objectives of an inventory search are threefold:  first, to protect the property of the owner while it is in the custody of the police; second, to protect the police against claims that property was lost, stolen, or damaged; third, to protect the police from dangerous items in the vehicle that might be hidden.  While the police may find incriminating evidence during an inventory search, a legitimate reason for an inventory search is not find incriminating evidence.

In Espinoza During the suppression hearing the court found problems with the way the inventory search was conducted. When the defendant was stopped by a deputy sheriff for speeding, the defendant was arrested because he was driving on a suspended license.  The passenger was also arrested because of an outstanding warrant. While waiting for the tow, the deputy sheriff searched the defendant’s wallet and the vehicle and discovered several forged debit and credit cards, as well as a card reader.

The defendant challenged the manner in which the prosecutor admitted the contents of the inventory search into evidence, as well as the manner in which the deputy sheriff conducted the inventory search.  The court shared the defendant’s concerns. An inventory search is proper only if it is conducted in a manner that is consistent with established police procedure.  The court pointed out that the prosecutor did not ask the deputy sheriff any substantive questions about the inventory search policy to establish that the search was reasonable and that it was conducted according to the sheriff department’s procedures.  In addition, there were discrepancies in the deputy’s testimony about the details of the search, including the exact time that the search actually commenced, the interaction that the deputy sheriff with a Metropolitan Transportation Authority officer who arrived on the scene, and whether the defendant’s wallet was found on the defendant’s person or in the car.

Furthermore, the defendant argued that the inventory search was not conducted for valid reasons, but as a pretext to find incriminating evidence.  There was evidence that indicated that contrary to the deputy’s testimony, the deputy actually found the defendant’s wallet on his person, searched the wallet, and found stolen credit cards.  The court concluded that because the deputy found the stolen credit cards, he decided to conduct an inventory search because he assumed that there may be more evidence of illegal activity in the car. Thus, the court agreed that the search was not conducted for a lawful reason, but as an effort to find contraband, making the inventory search illegal.

Note that since it was appropriate for the defendant’s car to be impounded due to the defendant driving on a suspended license, the deputy sheriff could have conducted a valid inventory search and would have found the incriminating evidence.  Because he did not follow procedure and made things worse by giving questionable testimony in the suppression hearing, the bulk of the incriminating evidence was suppressed, severely damaging the prosecution’s case.

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