Monday, September 28, 2020


Article Index

Container Searches. When police have reasonable suspicion that evidence of criminal activity or contraband is located in a movable container, they may secure the container to prevent its loss or destruction or to perform a dog sniff test. However, a warrant is required to search the container unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. The police may conduct a warrantless search of any container located in an automobile if probable cause exists to search the container itself or the automobile as a whole. Similarly, no warrant is necessary to search a container if its illicit contents are in plain view or may be inferred from the container's outward characteristics, if the container is abandoned, or if the container search is simply repeated to the extent of a previously conducted private search.

Other exceptions to the warrant requirement may apply after a lawful seizure of an individual or a container. For example, following a custodial arrest, the police may search any container within the arrestee's “immediate control,” including those on the arrestee's person, and those found in an “area from within which [the arrestee] might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” In the automobile context, the Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean the area that the suspect can reach if unsecured at the time of the search. Containers can also be searched if police have reason to believe they contain evidence of the crime for which the suspect was arrested. Finally, the police do not need a warrant to conduct an inventory search of a lawfully seized container.

Inventory Searches. After lawfully taking custody of property, police may conduct a warrantless search of that property if the owner's diminished expectation of privacy is outweighed by the government's interest in satisfying one of three purposes: (1) protecting the owner's property while it is in police custody; (2) protecting the police against claims of lost or stolen property; or (3) protecting the police from potential danger. Because the justification for the search is the production of an inventory of the container's contents, police may not conduct an inventory search in bad faith or solely for investigative purposes. Nevertheless, an inventory search may be justified by legitimate inventory purposes despite the presence of additional investigative motives.

Inventory searches are only valid if conducted according to standardized criteria and procedures. Within the framework of these criteria, however, police officers may exercise discretion to determine the appropriateness and scope of an inventory search, and they are not required to use the least intrusive means to secure property lawfully in their possession.

Courts have upheld inventory searches of vehicles lawfully in police custody, including searches of the passenger compartment, glove compartment, trunk (with some exceptions), engine compartment, and any containers in the vehicle. Police may search containers and items in the possession of lawfully detained individuals. In addition, government officials may inspect seemingly abandoned property to determine the identity of the owner, protect public safety, or inventory the property for safekeeping.


Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law