Vermillion, South Dakota, had a city ordinance making it illegal to park in certain areas between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. A vehicle belonging to Opperman was cited for parking in a restricted area and subsequently towed to the police impound lot, where it was then inventoried, per departmental procedure. Within the unlocked glove compartment officers discovered a plastic bag containing marijuana. Opperman was later arrested and charged with possession of marijuana. His motion to suppress the evidence produced by the inventory search was denied, and he was convicted. On appeal, the Supreme Court of South Dakota reversed Opperman’s conviction and concluded that the evidence obtained violated respondent’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, upholding the validity of the inventory procedure. The Court noted that less scrutiny is applied to automobile searches than residential searches, police are frequently required to impound vehicles that violate parking ordinances to protect public safety and to keep traffic movement efficient. When a vehicle is impounded, police departments are required to inventory the automobile’s contents for three reasons: to protect the occupant’s personal property, to protect the police from claims or disputes of lost or stolen property, and to protect the police from a potentially dangerous situation. The Vermillion police officers were lawfully engaging in a caretaking inventory of the vehicle. The inventory was conducted according to proper departmental procedure, and only after the vehicle had been impounded for numerous parking violations, the owner of the vehicle was not present to make other arrangements for the vehicle, and the officer had observed numerous valuable personal items within the vehicle. The court noted the outcome might be different if the impoundment had been merely a pretext concealing an ‘‘investigatory police motive.’’ Therefore, the court concluded that the inventory was not ‘‘unreasonable’’ under the Fourth Amendment.
See also Automobile Searches; Exclusionary Rule; Search (General Definition)