The defendant’s car was impounded for violations of municipal parking ordinances. At the impound lot, an officer noticed a watch on the dashboard of the car and other personal items on the backseat and back floorboard. The officer opened the car. Following standard procedures, the officer inventoried the contents of the car including the contents of the unlocked glove compartment. The officer found marijuana in the glove compartment and the defendant was arrested
Whether the Fourth Amendment allows the government to conduct an inventory search of a car lawfully impounded, without a warrant or probable cause?
Yes. Law enforcement officers are entitled to make an inventory of items in their custody for reasons of accountability.
When vehicles are impounded, officers routinely follow care-taking procedures by securing and inventorying the car’s contents. These procedures developed in response to three distinct needs: (1) to protect the owner’s property while it remains in government custody, (2) to protect the government against claims of lost or stolen property, and (3) to protect officers from potential danger posed by the contents of the car.
In this case, the officer was engaged in a caretaking search of a lawfully impounded automobile. The reasonableness of the search was enhanced because the owner was not present at the time of impoundment to claim his property, and because the officer saw a watch through the window before began his search. In addition, the officer followed a standard procedure, making the search reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
428 U.S. 364, 96 S. Ct. 3092 (1976)