Superior Court Finds That Warrantless Inventory Searches Are Legal

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ September 17, 2013

Earlier this week, the Superior Court decided Commonwealth v. Gatlos, which dealt with the admissibility of drug evidence found incidental to a non-investigatory warrantless inventory search of a vehicle. An inventory search is one where the police are conducting a search not to investigate, but rather to find or take inventory of certain items. In its ruling, the court held that such searches are legal and evidence found therefrom is admissible at trial.

In the case before the court, defendant/appellant Danielle Gatlos caused a serious accident on March 12, 2010 that involved two other vehicles in Chester County. Gatlos was taken to the hospital to receive treatment but was unconscious and unresponsive, with no way to identify her. Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Martin conducted an inventory search of the vehicle to find her driver’s license, which he found in her purse, along with a box of cigars with one cigar missing. Trooper Martin also tried to find her insurance information but was unsuccessful. Three days later, Trooper Katherine Miller went to the tow yard where Gatlos’ car was impounded in order to conduct another inventory search, again seeking her insurance information. While conducting the search, Trooper Miller found the end of a cigar with marijuana in it, which she seized as evidence.

Gatlos moved to have the evidence from both searches suppressed, arguing that the searches were illegal since there were no warrants, probable cause, or consent. The Commonwealth argued that the searches were lawful inventory searches. The trial court denied the motion, and a jury found Gatlos guilty of DUI, possession of marijuana and other charges. Gatlos then appealed the trial court’s denial of her motion.

In its decision, the Superior Court sided with the Commonwealth. The court held that such an inventory search is lawful, as long as the police are not using it as an excuse to search for other evidence. In the first search, Trooper Martin was conducting a lawful inventory search to find Gatlos’ driver’s license, which was critical to identifying her and saving her life. Trooper Miller lawfully conducted the second inventory search in order to find her insurance documentation, which was in line with police procedure. Both searches were legal; therefore, any evidence recovered from the searches was admissible. The ruling was affirmed.

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