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Search of Woman’s Purse Held Unconstitutional

Following an infraction traffic stop, a woman was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and neglect of a dependent after police found methamphetamine in her purse. The Indiana Court of Appeals held that the search of the woman's purse was unlawful and violated her right against unlawful search and seizure. An officer stopped the woman for driving left of center. He then determined that the woman's driver's license was suspended. When the woman exited her vehicle, she had her purse with her outside the vehicle. The police officer then advised the woman that her vehicle would be impounded per Indiana State Police policy, because she was Operating a Vehicle While Suspended and without insurance, both infractions.

If a vehicle is lawfully impounded, police may make an inventory search of the vehicle without a search warrant. However, the search itself must be conducted pursuant to standard police procedures. The police cannot use the inventory search as a pretext for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence. After the police officer learned the woman’s driver’s license was suspended, he told her to place her purse in the trunk. He then proceeded to search the purse as part of his inventory. Within the purse he found methamphetamine.

The Court of Appeals held that the search conducted exceeded the scope of an inventory search. The Court found that there was no evidence that the woman had abandoned her purse inside the vehicle, or that she disclaimed ownership of it, and she had the purse with her outside the vehicle when the officer instructed her to place it where he then searched it. Another important fact cited by the Court of Appeals, is that the officer only had evidence of infraction traffic offenses, and not criminal traffic violations. Thus, although impounding the vehicle and doing an inventory search was lawful, searching the woman's purse was not. Thus, all evidence of the woman’s possession of methamphetamine was ordered suppressed.

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Posted: 7/30/2009 9:13:14 AM by Brett Gibson
Filed under: illegal, motion, search, suppress


 

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