Officers Cannot Search Containers of Already-Identified Drivers Involved in Accident Without a Warrant

State v. Evans, No. 119,458 (Kan. Nov. 21, 2018)

Issue: The “community caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement allows officers to conduct limited warrantless searches. Evans, who had already identified herself to officers, was taken from the scene of a car accident by ambulance. An officer opened her wallet to find her driver’s license; he found drugs. Did the search of Evans’ wallet violate the Fourth Amendment? 

Answer: Yes. The search did not qualify as an exception to the warrant requirement, so the officer had no authority to search the wallet.

Facts: Evans was involved in a serious car accident. Officers arrived to the scene, identified the driver as Evans, and noticed no signs of impairment. After Evans left the scene in an ambulance, an officer noticed a purse and wallet inside the car. Attempting to locate Evans’ driver’s license, the officer opened the purse and unzipped a side compartment of the wallet, finding a baggie containing methamphetamine. When Evans later retrieved her wallet, she was charged with unlawful possession.

Discussion: The court dismissed the officer’s “community caretaking function” because although law enforcement officers serve a caretaking role, this role does not itself constitute a blanket exception to the warrant requirement. There was no standard police procedure for collecting and inspecting containers and other personal property for safekeeping.
Moreover, because Evans had already identified himself—which is all an officer needs to complete an accident report—the search was not justified under the “emergency doctrine exception.”

Key Authorities:

Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973) (holding the search of a towed car fell into the inventory exception and was part of the caretaking duties of law enforcement officers).

Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990) (holding that officers must follow standard procedure when conducting inventory searches of containers).

State v. Canaan, 265 Kan. 835, 964 P.2d 681 (1998) (discussing the plain view and inventory exceptions to the warrant requirement).

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