Court Discusses the Concept of an Inventory Search in Recent New York Burglary Case

The United States and New York constitutions provide certain rights to citizens. Among these protections include the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, police officers need to obtain a warrant to conduct a search. However, there are certain situations where a police officer’s actions are not considered a “search” under the law. In a recent New York burglary case, the court discusses one such situation, called an “inventory search.”

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a police officer attempted to stop the defendant for expired registration. The defendant led the officer on a high-speed chase, before crashing into a marsh. The defendant’s vehicle was disabled, and police called a towing company to tow the car.

When the tow truck driver arrived on the scene, he searched through the car to take an inventory of what was inside. Tow truck companies do this to avoid potential liability, in case the owner of the vehicle later claims there was something of value that turned up missing after their vehicle was towed. The tow truck driver located several high-value tools.

A detective later arrived on the scene. Seeing that there were expensive tools in the car, the detective called in the serial number on one particular tool. He learned that the tool came back stolen. Evidently, it was taken during a recent burglary. Prosecutors later charged the defendant with burglary.

The defendant was convicted and appealed. Among the issues addressed in the appellate court’s opinion was whether the detective’s “search” of the car was illegal. The court concluded that it was not. The court explained that the search was a valid inventory search carried out by the tow company employee, and that it was not conducted to located incriminating evidence. The court explained that the constitutional protections afforded by the state and federal constitutions are “wholly inapplicable to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the government.”

Here, the court held that the tow truck driver was not acting at the behest of law enforcement when he searched through the car, and was only acting pursuant to his duties as a tow truck driver. Thus, the tow truck driver’s search of the car was not a “search” as defined by the law. Thus, it did not need to be supported by probable cause, and did not require the issuance of a warrant.

Have You Been Arrested for a New York Crime?

If you were recently arrested after police engaged in a questionable search of your car, do not give up hope. Police are required to follow strict procedures when searching vehicles, and cannot direct third-parties to search a car to get around your constitutional rights. At the Law Offices of Mark. A. Siesel we aggressively represent the interests of our clients throughout the criminal trial process. Our skilled New York criminal defense attorneys develop compelling defenses in even the toughest cases. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation, call (914) 428-7386 today.