Wednesday, July 8, 1998

US Supreme Court Colorado v. Bertine 85-889

Decided 1-14-87.

   Bertine was arrested, his car was impounded, and an officer conducted an inventory of the car prior to towing it.  During the inventory the officer found meth, paraphernalia, and money in a backpack, and Bertine was charged with possession.

   The evidence was initially suppressed by the trial court and by the Colorado Supreme Court, because they held that during an inventory which included closed containers they officers needed to weigh the likelihood of finding valuable items in the container against the defendant's privacy interest in that container, and also because the Court relied on previous decisions which had held the search of closed containers impermissible (although those cases didn't involve vehicle inventories).  The US Supreme Court reversed the Colorado Supreme Court.

   The court discussed South Dakota v. Opperman, which held that the government's interests in an inventory (to protect an owner's property while it is in the custody of the police, to insure against claims of lost, stolen, or vandalized property, and to guard the police from danger) outweigh a person's diminished expectation of privacy in a vehicle.  Because these purposes are not related to criminal investigation, this kind of search is reasonable even in the absence of a warrant or probable cause.  In the present case, the court held that these interests would be better served by a single standard than by requiring officers in the field to make the complicated determinations that the Colorado court wanted.  The court also held that there was no evidence that the officers acted in bad faith or for the purposes of uncovering criminal evidence, so the search was valid.

   Bertine also argued that because Boulder PD regulations gave officers discretion to either impound a car or leave it secured where it was, the inventory violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the police chose to impound it.  The Supreme Court ruled that this discretion doesn't invalidate the search as long as the officers exercise their discretion according to standard criteria (related to the feasibility and appropriateness of parking and locking a vehicle rather than impounding it), and don't impound vehicles as an excuse to search them for evidence.

Monday, July 6, 1998

US Supreme Court New York v. Burger 86-80

Decided June 19, 1987

   Burger was the proprietor of an auto salvage yard (which he was operating without a license).  Police showed up to conduct an inspection of his business records and inventory, pursuant to a New York statute that allowed them to do random inspections on auto salvage yards.  He didn't have any business records to show them, but he did have inventory, which was stolen.  He was charged with possession of stolen property and with operating his junkyard without a license.

   Burger moved to suppress the evidence because the police searched his yard without a warrant.

   The US Supreme Court held that certain industries have a history of pervasive regulation by the government, to the extent that it diminishes their expectation of privacy.  They key question in identifying these industries isn't so much the length of time that they have been so regulated (although that is an factor), it's the depth and pervasiveness of the government oversight.  The industries mentioned in the decision include alcohol, firearms, mines, and junkyards.

   In order for the pervasive regulation of an industry to make search warrants (and even probable cause) unnecessary, a few requirements have to be satisfied:  First, there must be a substantial government interest in regulating the industry (in this case, it's the deterrence of auto theft by eliminating fences).  Second, warrantless inspections have to be necessary to further the regulative scheme (in this case, the court noted that stolen cars move quickly through junkyards, and that frequent unnanounced inspections are necessary to deter this).  Third, the regulatory scheme has to provide a constitutionally acceptable substitute for a warrant.  This means there has to be some sort of regulation which defines the scope of the search and puts the business owner on notice that the business is subject to searches (in this case, the statute itself was held to be a constitutionally acceptable substitute).

   The suppression order entered by a lower court was reversed.