D.Neb.: Inventory reasonable and followed SOP despite officer’s expectation to find evidence of crime

The inventory here was reasonable despite the fact the officer suspected illegal items in the vehicle. A criminal search was not the sole motivating factor, and the inventory followed SOPs. United States v. Nielsen, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 249611 (D.Neb. Dec. 1, 2021):

Deputy Johnson certainly made comments indicating he suspected Defendant was engaged in criminal activity and that his decision to impound the Mazda was based, at least in part, on the suspicious nature of items he saw inside the Mazda. Deputy Johnson testified he decided to tow the Mazda “about the time I got in the vehicle and got [Defendant’s] phone out … it just became obvious that there were items in there that did not appear to be …. It just seemed like there were items that could have possibly been stolen items in the vehicle[.]” (TR. 18-19). Deputy Johnson similarly told Defendant that deputies were going to tow the Mazda “based on you being in here within the dumpster and there’s some weird stuff in that pickup out there.” (Ex. 1 at 34:07-35).

But, “[t]he police are not precluded from conducting inventory searches when they lawfully impound the vehicle of an individual that they also happen to suspect is involved in illegal activity.” United States v. Harris, 795 F.3d 820, 822 (8th Cir. 2015). “If an impoundment is otherwise valid, an investigatory motive does not prevent police from towing a vehicle and conducting an inventory search … An investigatory motive does not render an inventory search invalid unless that motive is the officers’ sole motivation in carrying out the search.” United States v. Evans, 781 F.3d 433, 437 (8th Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added).

The evidence before the Court does not establish that Deputy Johnson’s sole motive in impounding the Mazda was to conduct an investigatory search. Deputy Johnson had arrested Defendant pursuant to a felony arrest warrant for narcotics distribution and pursued further investigation to discover whether there was evidence of crime in or around the Mazda. The drug canine did not alert to the odor of narcotics and deputies admittedly did not develop probable cause to search the Mazda. The investigation was over. Defendant was in custody and deputies were left with a driverless vehicle blocking a dumpster on a closed business’s property in an industrial area after dark. Deputy Johnson testified he decided to tow the Mazda based on his department’s tow policy, which permitted a deputy to tow a vehicle after arresting its driver. Under these circumstances, Deputy Johnson’s decision to impound the Mazda was reasonable, even though he also suspected Defendant was involved in illegal activity.

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