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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Trooper’s Search of Detained Suspect’s Purse Unconstitutional

During a traffic stop, an Ohio State Highway patrolman placed a woman with an outstanding arrest warrant into the back of his cruiser. His “inventory” search of her purse on the hood of his car, which turned up drugs, was ruled unconstitutional today by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Writing the Supreme Court’s lead opinion, Justice William M. O’Neill stated that in the course of events leading to the arrest, the trooper provided no justification for searching the vehicle without a search warrant. The Court majority determined that because the purse was illegally seized, the inventory search that followed was invalid and the evidence from it should have been suppressed by the trial court.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court with the order to suppress the evidence discovered in the purse.

The ruling came from a Warren County case involving Jamie Banks-Harvey. The trooper had maintained it was standard department policy that the purse of an arrested woman accompanies the woman to jail, and the Twelfth District Court of Appeals has ruled that an inventory search of the purse would have inevitably discovered the illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia inside the bag.

Justices Judith L. French and Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice’s O’Neill’s opinion. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only with a written opinion.

Justice R. Patrick DeWine, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, explained that he would have found that the trooper’s retrieval of the purse was legal and that the inventory search was reasonable. Justice Terrence O’Donnell, in a separate dissent, argued the case was improvidently allowed, and noting the case is so factually specific that no general rule of law can be formed from its resolution.

Oral arguments in Banks-Harvey case were conducted at a special off-site court session in April at Morgan County High School. (See Morgan County to Host Ohio Supreme Court Session)

Outstanding Warrant Discovered for Unlicensed Driver
In 2014, Banks-Harvey was stopped by a trooper in Warren County for speeding. Inside the car was Charles Hall, Banks-Harvey’s boyfriend who owned the car, and their friend Shannon Holcomb. Banks-Harvey revealed she did not have a driver’s license, handed the officer a state identification card, and explained that she was driving because Hall hurt his hand and they were taking him to get medical attention. Neither Hall nor Holcomb were carrying driver’s licenses.

The trooper had Banks-Harvey get out of the car, conducted a pat-down search of her, and placed her in the back seat of his cruiser. Her purse remained in Hall’s car. The trooper received an alert that Banks-Harvey had an outstanding arrest warrant in Montgomery County for heroin possession and Holcomb had an arrest warrant in Warren County for drug paraphernalia possession. Hall had no outstanding warrants.

Holcomb was placed in the cruiser with Banks-Harvey, and the two were told they were being taken to jail. A local police officer arrived at the scene to assist the trooper.

The trooper informed Hall of the women’s warrants and asked if he could search the vehicle. Hall did not consent. The trooper then reached into the vehicle, retrieved Banks-Harvey’s purse, placed it on the hood of the cruiser, and searched it. He discovered pills, capsules of fluids and powders, and needles. He confirmed the substances to be illegal drugs. The trooper showed the drugs to the accompanying local police officer, who responded that he might have observed a capsule in Hall’s car.

The trooper searched the car and found a needle and empty capsule. He did not arrest any of the car occupants nor did he file charges based on what was discovered in the car. He permitted Hall to drive away as he took the women to jail.

Detainee Seeks to Suppress Evidence
Banks-Harvey was charged with felony possession of drugs and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia and drug-abuse instruments, based on the items found in her purse. She filed a motion to suppress the evidence, which the trial court denied. Banks-Harvey pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to three years of community control that included a requirement that she complete inpatient drug treatment.

She appealed her conviction to the Twelfth District, which upheld the trial court’s decision, but for different reasons. The appellate court ruled the highway patrol has a policy to retrieve and inventory the belongings of an arrested person and that a valid inventory search of Banks-Harvey’s purse would have turned up the drugs.

The Court agreed to consider the issue of whether the policy to retrieve belongings of an arrested person would authorize a warrantless search of car under the Fourth Amendment.

Court Rejects Inventory Search Argument
The lead opinion explains that law enforcement must have a warrant to conduct a search unless the search fits into one of the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment defined by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Justice O’Neill explained that an inventory search is one of the exceptions because it is conducted for administrative reasons that are unrelated to criminal investigations. Police are potentially responsible for the personal effects of those arrested and can inventory them when a person is taken into custody.

The trooper testified it is department policy to transport an arrested person’s property with them, but he did not offer a written policy as evidence during the hearing to suppress the evidence. The Court ruled that the policy of keeping the property with the arrested person does not justify an invalid warrantless search of a vehicle to obtain the property.

The Court found the trooper had no justification for taking the purse from the car. The trooper did not need it to confirm Banks-Harvey’s identity because she had handed him a state ID card. At the time he took the purse, Banks-Harvey presented no danger to him because she was handcuffed and in the back of the cruiser. And the police did not impound the car to inventory it, but instead let Hall drive it away.

“Neither the purse, nor the vehicle that contained the purse, came into police custody as a result of her arrest. On these facts, the state has failed to show that this search fits under the inventory-search exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement,” the opinion stated.

The lead opinion noted that had the trooper obtained the purse in a legal way, such as retrieving it at Banks-Harvey’s request, or if she was carrying it when arrested, the inventory policy would have validated the search.

Concurrence Finds Trooper’s Actions Unjustified
Justice Kennedy wrote that it is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for an officer to conduct an inventory search incident to incarceration if the officer has no intention of taking the arrested person to a police station for booking and incarceration, and there is no discretionary authority for an officer to take personal effects not in the possession of an arrested person which are safely secured to the police station for an inventory search.

The concurrence noted the trooper testified that he did not intend to have Banks-Harvey booked into a Warren County detention facility, but was detaining her until Montgomery County authorities picked her up for her outstanding warrant violation. He said he searched the purse so that the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office would not to have to “deal with it.”

The trooper also testified he could have left the purse with the boyfriend. The concurring opinion noted that the policy of taking the purse was not a hard and fast rule, and the trooper never asked Banks-Harvey if she wanted to leave the purse with Hall.

“By his own admission, the trooper retrieved the appellant’s purse from her live-in boyfriend’s vehicle to look for evidence of a crime,” the opinion stated.

The trooper also stated he took the purse “to safeguard her possessions” and “to look for weapons for officer safety considerations” the concurrence observed. Because the trooper did not have a good faith belief he was safeguarding her possessions or searching the purse for officer safety, the only other justification for the search was looking for evidence of a crime. Therefore, the search was invalid.

Without a valid exception to the Fourth Amendment to obtain the purse or a good faith belief that an exception applied, the opinion concluded it was “compelled to apply the exclusionary rule.”

Dissent Finds Search Legal
In his dissent, Justice DeWine explained that a seizure under the Fourth Amendment occurs only when there is a “meaningful interference” with a person’s right to possess their property. The trooper’s retrieval of the purse so that it could accompany Banks-Harvey to jail did not amount to a meaningful interference with her possession of it. Justice DeWine also noted that the policy that a purse goes with an arrested person was reasonable. The possibility that Banks-Harvey’s purse could have been left with her boyfriend did not make the standard policy unreasonable.

The dissent went on to state that once the trooper had lawfully retrieved the purse, his inventory search pursuant to department policy was reasonable. That the trooper may also have been on the lookout for illegal items during the search did not affect the reasonability of the search. In the dissent’s view, because both the retrieval of the purse and the search of it were reasonable, the evidence found in the purse were admissible in Banks-Harvey’s trial.

2016-0930. State v. Banks-Harvey, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-201.

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