South Dakota v. Opperman


No. 75-76 Argued: March 29, 1976 --- Decided: July 6, 1976
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We review the judgment of the Supreme Court of South Dakota, holding that local police violated the Fourth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, as applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment, when they conducted a routine inventory search of an automobile lawfully impounded by police for violations of municipal parking ordinances.

Local ordinances prohibit parking in certain areas of downtown Vermillion, S.D. between the hours of 2 am. and 6 a.m. During the early morning hours of December 10, 1973, a Vermillion police officer observed respondent's unoccupied vehicle illegally parked in the restricted zone. At approximately 3 a.m., the officer issued an overtime parking ticket and placed it on the car's windshield. The citation warned:

Vehicles in violation of any parking ordinance may be towed from the area.

At approximately 10 o'clock on the same morning, another [p366] officer issued a second ticket for an overtime parking violation. These circumstances were routinely reported to police headquarters, and after the vehicle was inspected, the car was towed to the city impound lot.

From outside the car at the impound lot, a police officer observed a watch on the dashboard and other items of personal property located on the back seat and back floorboard. At the officer's direction, the car door was then unlocked and, using a standard inventory form pursuant to standard police procedures, the officer inventoried the contents of the car, including the contents of the glove compartment, which was unlocked. There he found marihuana contained in a plastic bag. All items, including the contraband, were removed to the police department for safekeeping. [n1] During the late afternoon of December 10, respondent appeared at the police department to claim his property. The marihuana was retained by police.

Respondent was subsequently arrested on charges of possession of marihuana. His motion to suppress the evidence yielded by the inventory search was denied; he was convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to a fine of $100 and 14 days' incarceration in the county jail. On appeal, the Supreme Court of South Dakota reversed [p367] the conviction. 89 S.D. ___, 228 N.W.2d 152. The court concluded that the evidence had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. We granted certiorari, 423 U.S. 923 (1975), and we reverse.

This Court has traditionally drawn a distinction between automobiles and homes or offices in relation to the Fourth Amendment. Although automobiles are "effects," and thus within the reach of the Fourth Amendment, Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 439 (1973), warrantless examinations of automobiles have been upheld in circumstances in which a search of a home or office would not. Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 589 (1974); Cady v. Dombrowski, supra at 439-440; Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 48 (1970).

The reason for this well settled distinction is twofold. First, the inherent mobility of automobiles creates circumstances of such exigency that, as a practical necessity, rigorous enforcement of the warrant requirement is impossible. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153-154 (1925); Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 459-460 (1971). But the Court has also upheld warrantless searches where no immediate danger was presented that the car would be removed from the jurisdiction. Chambers v. Maroney, supra at 51-52; Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. 58 (1967). Besides the element of mobility, less rigorous warrant requirements govern because the expectation of privacy with respect to one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office. [n2] In discharging their varied responsibilities [p368] for ensuring the public safety, law enforcement officials are necessarily brought into frequent contact with automobiles. Most of this contact is distinctly noncriminal in nature. Cady v. Dombrowski, supra at 442. Automobiles, unlike homes, are subjected to pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls, including periodic inspection and licensing requirements. As an everyday occurrence, police stop and examine vehicles when license plates or inspection stickers have expired, or if other violations, such as exhaust fumes or excessive noise, are noted, or if headlights or other safety equipment are not in proper working order.

The expectation of privacy as to automobiles is further diminished by the obviously public nature of automobile travel. Only two Terms ago, the Court noted:

One has a lesser expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle because its function is transportation and it seldom serves as one's residence or as the repository of personal effects. . . . It travels public thoroughfares where both its occupants and its contents are in plain view.

Cardwell v. Lewis, supra at 590.

In the interests of public safety and as part of what the Court has called "community caretaking functions," Cady v. Dombrowski, supra at 441, automobiles are frequently taken into police custody. Vehicle accidents present one such occasion. To permit the uninterrupted flow of traffic and in some circumstances to preserve evidence, disabled or damaged vehicles will often be removed from the highways or streets at the behest of police engaged solely in caretaking and traffic control activities. [p369] Police will also frequently remove and impound automobiles which violate parking ordinances and which thereby jeopardize both the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. [n3] The authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.

When vehicles are impounded, local police departments generally follow a routine practice of securing and inventorying the automobiles' contents. These procedures developed in response to three distinct needs: the protection of the owner's property while it remains in police custody, United States v. Mitchell, 458 F.2d 960, 961 (CA9 1972); the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, United States v. Kelehar, 470 F.2d 176, 178 (CA5 1972); and the protection of the police from potential danger, Cooper v. California, supra at 61-62. The practice has been viewed as essential to respond to incidents of theft or vandalism. See Cabbler v. Commonwealth, 212 Va. 520, 522, 184 S.E.2d 781, 782 (1971), cert. denied, 405 U.S. 1073 (1972); Warrix v. State, 50 Wis.2d 368, 376, 184 N.W.2d 189, 194 (1971). In addition, police frequently attempt to determine whether a vehicle has been stolen, and thereafter abandoned.

These caretaking procedures have almost uniformly been upheld by the state courts, which, by virtue of the localized nature of traffic regulation, have had considerable occasion to deal with the issue. [n4] Applying the [p370] Fourth Amendment standard of "reasonableness," [n5] the state courts have overwhelmingly concluded that, even if an inventory is characterized as a "search," [n6] the [p371] intrusion is constitutionally permissible. See, e.g., City of St. Paul v. Myles, 298 Minn. 298, 300-301, 218 N.W.2d 697, 699 (1974); State v. Tully, 166 Conn.126, 136, 348 A.2d 603, 609 (1974); People v. Trusty, 183 Colo. 291, 296-297, 516 P.2d 423, 425-426 (1973); People v. Sullivan, 29 N.Y.2d 69, 73, 272 N.E.2d 464, 466 (1971); Cabbler v. Commonwealth, supra; Warrix v. State, supra; State v. Wallen, 185 Neb. 44, 173 N.W.2d 372, cert. denied, 399 U.S. 912 (1970); State v. Criscola, 21 Utah 2d 272, 444 P.2d 517 (1968); State v. Montague, 73 Wash.2d 381, 438 P.2d 571 (1968); People v. Clark, 32 Ill.App.3d 898, 336 N.E.2d 892 (1975); State v. Achter, 512 S.W.2d 894 (Mo.Ct.App. 1974); Bennett v. State, 507 P.2d 1252 (Okla.Crim.App. 1973); People v. Willis, 46 Mich.App. 436, 208 N.W.2d 204 (1973); State v. All, 17 N.C. App. 284, 193 S.E.2d 770, cert. denied, 414 U.S. 866 (1973); Godbee v. State, 224 So.2d 441 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 1969). Even the seminal state decision relied on by the South Dakota Supreme Court in reaching the contrary result, Mozzetti v. Superior Court, 4 Cal.3d 699, 484 P.2d 84 (1971), expressly approved police caretaking activities resulting in the securing of property within the officer's plain view.

The majority of the Federal Courts of Appeals have likewise sustained inventory procedures as reasonable police intrusions. As Judge Wisdom has observed:

[W]hen the police take custody of any sort of container [such as] an automobile . . . , it is reasonable to search the container to itemize the property to be held by the police. [This reflects] the underlying principle that the fourth amendment proscribes only unreasonable searches.

United States v. Gravitt, 484 F.2d 375, 378 (CA5 1973), cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1135 (1974) (emphasis in original). [p372] See also Cabbler v. Superintendent, 528 F.2d 1142 (CA4 1975), cert. pending, No. 75-1463; Barker v. Johnson, 484 F.2d 941 (CA6 1973); United States v. Mitchell, 458 F.2d 960 (CA9 1972); United States v. Lipscomb, 435 F.2d 795 (CA5 1970), cert. denied, 401 U.S. 980 (1971); United States v. Pennington, 441 F.2d 249 (CA5), cert. denied, 404 U.S. 854 (1971); United States v. Boyd, 436 F.2d 1203 (CA5 1971); Cotton v. United States, 371 F.2d 385 (CA9 1967). Accord, Lowe v. Hopper, 400 F.Supp. 970, 976-977 (SD Ga.1975); United States v. Spitalieri, 391 F.Supp. 167, 169-170 (ND Ohio 1975); United States v. Smith, 340 F.Supp. 1023 (Conn.1972); United States v. Fuller, 277 F.Supp. 97 (DC 1967), conviction aff'd, 139 U.S.App.D.C. 375, 433 F.2d 533 (1970). These cases have recognized that standard inventories often include an examination of the glove compartment, since it is a customary place for documents of ownership and registration, United States v. Pennington, supra at 251, as well as a place for the temporary storage of valuables.

The decisions of this Court point unmistakably to the conclusion reached by both federal and state courts that inventories pursuant to standard police procedures are reasonable. In the first such case, Mr. Justice Black made plain the nature of the inquiry before us: .

But the question here is not whether the search was authorized by state law. The question is rather whether the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. at 61 (emphasis added).
And, in his last writing on the Fourth Amendment, Mr. Justice Black said:

[T]he Fourth Amendment does not require that every search be made pursuant to a warrant. It [p373] prohibits only "unreasonable searches and seizures." The relevant test is not the reasonableness of the opportunity to procure a warrant, but the reasonableness of the seizure under all the circumstances. The test of reasonableness cannot be fixed by per se rules; each case must be decided on its own facts.

Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. at 509-510 (concurring and dissenting) (emphasis added).

In applying the reasonableness standard adopted by the Framers, this Court has consistently sustained police intrusions into automobiles impounded or otherwise in lawful police custody where the process is aimed at securing or protecting the car and its contents. In Cooper v. California, supra, the Court upheld the inventory of a car impounded under the authority of a state forfeiture statute. Even though the inventory was conducted in a distinctly criminal setting [n7] and carried out a week after the car had been impounded, the Court nonetheless found that the car search, including examination of the glove compartment where contraband was found, was reasonable under the circumstances. This conclusion was reached despite the fact that no warrant had issued and probable cause to search for the contraband in the vehicle had not been established. The Court said in language explicitly applicable here:

It would be unreasonable to hold that the police, having to retain the car in their custody for such a length of time, had no right, even for their own protection, to search it.

386 U.S. at 61-62. [n8] [p374]

In the following Term, the Court in Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234 (1968), upheld the introduction of evidence, seized by an officer who, after conducting an inventory search of a car and while taking means to safeguard it, observed a car registration card lying on the metal stripping of the car door. Rejecting the argument that a warrant was necessary, the Court held that the intrusion was justifiable, since it was "taken to protect the car while it was in police custody." Id. at 236. [n9] Finally, in Cady v. Dombrowski, supra, the Court upheld a warrantless search of an automobile towed to a private garage even though no probable cause existed to believe that the vehicle contained fruits of a crime. The sole justification for the warrantless incursion was that it was incident to the caretaking function of the local police to protect the community's safety. Indeed, the protective search was instituted solely because local police "were under the impression" that the incapacitated driver, a Chicago police officer, was required to carry his service revolver at all times; the police had reasonable grounds to believe a weapon might be in the car, and thus available to vandals. 413 U.S. at 436. The Court carefully noted that the protective search was [p375] carried out in accordance with standard procedures in the local police department, ibid., a factor tending to ensure that the intrusion would be limited in scope to the extent necessary to carry out the caretaking function. See United States v. Spitalieri, 391 F.Supp. at 169. In reaching this result, the Court in Cady distinguished Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364 (1964), on the grounds that the holding, invalidating a car search conducted after a vagrancy arrest, "stands only for the proposition that the search challenged there could not be justified as one incident to an arrest." 413 U.S. at 444. Preston therefore did not raise the issue of the constitutionality of a protective inventory of a car lawfully within police custody.

The holdings in Cooper, Harris, and Cady point the way to the correct resolution of this ease. None of the three cases, of course, involves the precise situation presented here; but, as in all Fourth Amendment cases, we are obliged to look to all the facts and circumstances of this case in light of the principles set forth in these prior decisions.

[W]hether a search and seizure is unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case. . . .

Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. at 59.

The Vermillion police were indisputably engaged in a caretaking search of a lawfully impounded automobile. Cf. United States v.Lawson, 487 F.2d 468, 471 (CA8 1973). The inventory was conducted only after the car had been impounded for multiple parking violations. The owner, having left his car illegally parked for an extended period, and thus subject to impoundment, was not present to make other arrangements for the safekeeping of his belongings. The inventory itself was prompted by the presence in plain view of a number of [p376] valuables inside the car. As in Cady, there is no suggestion whatever that this standard procedure, essentially like that followed throughout the country, was a pretext concealing an investigatory police motive. [n10]

On this record, we conclude that, in following standard police procedures prevailing throughout the country and approved by the overwhelming majority of courts, the conduct of the police was not "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment.

The judgment of the South Dakota Supreme Court is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Reversed and remanded.

1. At respondent's trial, the officer who conducted the inventory testified as follows:

Q. And why did you inventory this car?

A. Mainly for safekeeping, because we have had a lot of trouble in the past of people getting into the impound lot and breaking into cars and stealing stuff out of them.

Q. Do you know whether the vehicles that were broken into . . . were locked or unlocked?

A. Both of them were locked, they would be locked.

Record 74. In describing the impound lot, the officer stated:

A. It's the old county highway yard. It has a wooden fence partially around part of it, and kind of a dilapidated wire fence, a makeshift fence.

Id. at 73.

2. In Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 (1967), and See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541 (1967), the Court held that a warrant was required to effect an unconsented administrative entry into and inspection of private dwellings or commercial premises to ascertain health or safety conditions. In contrast, this procedure has never been held applicable to automobile inspections for safety purposes.

3. The New York Court of Appeals has noted that, in New York City alone, 108,332 cars were towed away for traffic violations during 1969. People v. Sullivan, 29 N.Y.2d 69, 71, 272 N.E.2d 464, 465 (1971).

4. In contrast to state officials engaged in everyday caretaking functions:

The contact with vehicles by federal law enforcement officers usually, if not always, involves the detection or investigation of crimes unrelated to the operation of a vehicle.

Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 440 (1973).

5. In analyzing the issue of reasonableness vel non, the courts have not sought to determine whether a protective inventory was justified by "probable cause." The standard of probable cause is peculiarly related to criminal investigations, not routine, noncriminal procedures. See generally Note, Warrantless Searches and Seizures of Automobiles, 87 Harv.L.Rev. 835, 850-851 (1974). The probable cause approach is unhelpful when analysis centers upon the reasonableness of routine administrative caretaking functions, particularly when no claim is made that the protective procedures are a subterfuge for criminal investigations.

In view of the noncriminal context of inventory searches, and the inapplicability in such a setting of the requirement of probable cause, courts have held -- and quite correctly -- that search warrants are not required, linked as the warrant requirement textually is to the probable cause concept. We have frequently observed that the warrant requirement assures that legal inferences and conclusions as to probable cause will be drawn by a neutral magistrate unrelated to the criminal investigative enforcement process. With respect to noninvestigative police inventories of automobiles lawfully within governmental custody, however, the policies underlying the warrant requirement, to which MR. JUSTICE POWELL refers, are inapplicable.

6. Given the benign noncriminal context of the intrusion, see Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309, 317 (1971), some courts have concluded that an inventory does not constitute a search for Fourth Amendment purposes. See, e.g., People v. Sullivan, supra at 77, 272 N.E.2d at 469; People v. Willis, 46 Mich.App. 436, 208 N.W.2d 204 (1973); State v. Wallen, 185 Neb. 44, 49-50, 173 N.W.2d 372, 376, cert. denied, 399 U.S. 912 (1970). Other courts have expressed doubts as to whether the intrusion is classifiable as a search. State v. All, 17 N.C. App. 284, 286, 193 S.E.2d 770, 772, cert. denied, 414 U.S. 866 (1973). Petitioner, however, has expressly abandoned the contention that the inventory in this case is exempt from the Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness. Tr. of Oral Arg. 5.

7. In Cooper, the owner had been arrested on narcotics charges, and the car was taken into custody pursuant to the state forfeiture statute. The search was conducted several months before the forfeiture proceedings were actually instituted.

8. There was, of course, no certainty at the time of the search that forfeiture proceedings would ever be held. Accordingly, there was no reason for the police to assume automatically that the automobile would eventually be forfeited to the State. Indeed, as the California Court of Appeal stated, "[T]he instant record nowhere discloses that forfeiture proceedings were instituted in respect to defendant's car. . . ." People v. Cooper, 234 Cal.App.2d 587, 596, 44 Cal.Rptr. 483, 489 (1965). No reason would therefore appear to limit Cooper to an impoundment pursuant to a forfeiture statute.

9. The Court expressly noted that the legality of the inventory was not presented, since the evidence was discovered at the point when the officer was taking protective measures to secure the automobile from the elements. But the Court clearly held that the officer acted properly in opening the car for protective reasons.

10. The inventory was not unreasonable in scope. Respondent's motion to suppress in state court challenged the inventory only as to items inside the car not in plain view. But once the policeman was lawfully inside the car to secure the personal property in plain view, it was not unreasonable to open the unlocked glove compartment, to which vandals would have had ready and unobstructed access once inside the car.

The "consent" theory advanced by the dissent rests on the assumption that the inventory is exclusively for the protection of the car owner. It is not. The protection of the municipality and public officers from claims of lost or stolen property and the protection of the public from vandals who might find a firearm, Cady v. Dombrowski, or, as here, contraband drugs, are also crucial.