POLICE INVENTORY SEARCH OF BACKPACK DEEEMED UNREASONABLE
In July of 2016, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the allowance of a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress the contents of a backpack that he was wearing when arrested in his hotel room in Raynham. The case began when the hotel called police to complain that the defendant had refused to leave his room after being advised that checkout time had come.
While on their way to respond to the call, the police learned from dispatch that the defendant had an active warrant for larceny under $250.00, a misdemeanor. The police arrived at the hotel, and knocked on the defendant’s hotel room door. The defendant answered the door with a cellphone in his hand, which he was told to drop, as he was being placed under arrest. One of the officers present physically recognized the defendant.
As a part of the arrest, the police observed that the defendant was wearing a small cloth backpack with ropes for shoulder straps. The police un-cuffed the defendant, removed the backpack, and then re-cuffed him.
The police then made arrangements for the desk clerk at the hotel to take possession of some of the defendant’s possessions, including a videogame console in his room, and a car in the hotel parking lot, which the desk clerk agreed could remain in the lot until its owner could come retrieve it.
Despite leaving most of the defendant’s possessions with the hotel for safekeeping, the police took possession of the backpack, and transported it to the Raynham police department, where they ultimately searched it, pursuant to the police department’s written inventory search policy. The backpack was found to contain a large amount of cash, as well as both cocaine and Percocet. The defendant was charged in connection with the drugs.
Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the items in the backpack, arguing that the search of the backpack violated his rights under Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The judge allowed the motion to suppress, finding that there was no probable cause connecting the backpack to the reason for the arrest, and that once the bag was removed from the defendant’s person, it did not pose any safety threat to the police officers.
The judge further found that “the only reason that that bag . . . was eventually brought to the booking procedure and the station . . . is by police action, not by action of this defendant. It was the police that removed that bag from the defendant, the police that seized the bag, the police that transported the bag back to the police station, and the police who searched the bag as part of [their] booking procedure.”
The motion judge concluded that there was no probable cause to search the backpack as incident to the defendant’s arrest on the outstanding warrant, and therefore the search of the backpack that had been on the defendant’s person when he was arrested was unlawful.
The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that “the search of the defendant’s bag was a permissible inventory search that may be undertaken not only of an arrested defendant’s person, but also of a defendant’s clothing and articles he or she is carrying.” The Commonwealth reasoned that the backpack was part of the defendant’s person at the time of his arrest, and the fact that an arresting officer removed it from the defendant’s person before placing it and the defendant in the police cruiser did not affect the validity of the inventory search.
The defendant argued that the inventory search of the backpack was a mere pretext for a warrantless search, and was therefore unreasonable and unconstitutional. He contended that the police could have left his backpack with the hotel for safekeeping, as they did with his other possessions.
In its decision, the SJC set forth the justifications that support valid inventory searches of an arrestee’s property, namely: to safeguard the property, to protect the police from claims of theft, and to keep weapons and drugs out of the prison population. The Court went on to note that, since inventory searches are allowed to be performed without a search warrant, the government must demonstrate that it was “reasonable” for the police to seize the items in the first place.
The SJC considered whether public safety concerns or the risk of theft would have rendered a decision to leave the backpack with the hotel “unreasonable.” Because the hotel clerk had already agreed to take possession of the defendant’s things, the Court found no real risk of theft, or to public safety. As the Court put it: “[i]n these circumstances, the officers could not reasonably have believed that they needed to seize the bag in order to protect the public or the contents of the bag.”
After deciding that neither risk of theft nor danger to the public justified the seizure of the backpack, the SJC considered whether seizing the backpack was otherwise reasonable in the totality of the circumstances. Because the police had made arrangements for the defendant’s other possessions to stay with the hotel, the Court felt that “[t]his suggests that the officers believed it was reasonable to leave the defendant’s personal possessions in the custody of the hotel[,]” and concluded that it was unreasonable “for the officers to single out the defendant’s bag to take to the police station, and to conduct a search pursuant to the police department’s inventory search policy.”
The SJC held that, because it was unreasonable for the police to seize the backpack, therefore even an otherwise lawful inventory search was unlawful. Accordingly, the SJC affirmed the lower court’s allowance of the defendant’s motion to suppress.
This case, Commonwealth v. Abdallah, is pretty fact-specific, and it will vary case-to-case whether the police can permissibly take an arrestee’s possessions along with them to the police station. I find the decision somewhat surprising, as the defendant was actually wearing the backpack when arrested. After all, an individual is not free to remove their pants during their arrest, and demand that a friend be allowed to take possession of them, just because they have drugs in their pockets. Perhaps the case turned on the fact that the police removed the backpack? But had they left the backpack on the defendant, surely they could have inventoried it at the station? I expect this case will be further fleshed out in the coming years
Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan
Criminal Defense – Worcester County