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Your police department should have a pretty well
detailed written procedure regarding how to submit
property as either evidence or for safekeeping.  It's
important that you read, comprehend, and follow
that procedure to the letter.  You're going to be
seizing or recovering property on a routine basis,
and most of the circumstances will be related to
some kind of criminal activity.

Your directive should describe what kind of property
cannot be returned to the rightful owner directly by
you.  Such items would include money, jewelry, or
other named items of obvious value.  Submission of
these items to the evidence/property unit of your
department ensures a high level of integrity for the
department and the individual police officer for
obvious reasons.  Just remember that whatever
property you return to anyone should be
documented and signed for by the owner.

You're on foot patrol at a strip mall when you hear
a woman screaming.  Not more that 50 feet away
from you on the sidewalk, you see a woman
struggling with a young man who is trying to take
the woman's handbag.

Before you can even begin to run toward them, the
suspect has the woman's bag, and he's running
directly toward you.  You simply draw your
nightstick and wait for him.  The dummy is nearly
on top of you, before he realizes his blunder.  As he
tries to change direction, he throws the woman's
bag at you to try to delay you.  His aim isn't any
better than his eyesight, and you're on top of him
in an instant.

After you subdue and handcuff the suspect, you
see the woman kneeling on the sidewalk.  When the
bag hit the pavement, all the contents spilled from
the bag.  The victim is retrieving the contents
including currency and coins.  

In this example it's obvious that the stolen property
never came into your possession.  In your report,
you'll simply state that the victim's property was
recovered directly by the victim, and that no
property ever came into your custody.

On the other hand, let's say the suspect held onto
to the bag, and you had to chase him for three
blocks, before you apprehended him along with the
property.  You eventually get back to the victim
along with the handbag.  This time, you inventory
the contents of the bag in front of the victim.  If the
bag contains no items restricted for release, you
return the property to the victim via required
documentation.  If the bag contains money, jewelry,
etc, you simply explain your department's
procedure.  You'll find that victims rarely object or
complain about such procedures.  Except under
circumstances where property must be retained as
evidence, victims can quickly reclaim their property
from the department's property unit.

This is a very simple example, but let's say the
suspect threw the bag at you three blocks away
from the scene where the victim was not
immediately present.  The victim is transported to
the arrest scene only moments after you apprehend
the suspect.  Even though you may not have
touched the property at this point, you've still had
constructive possession or custody of that property.

But...let's make this more complicated.  The victim
is from out of town on vacation.  She has a flight
scheduled to leave your jurisdiction that very
evening.  Her handbag contains several thousand
dollars worth of travelers checks.  It's obvious that
even a delay until the following day to reclaim her
property would cause her an extreme hardship.

Your department's directive should contain a
procedure for exigent circumstances which might be
as simple as obtaining the approval of a supervisor
to alter the procedure.  If no provision for exception
exists, you should make every effort to find
someone of higher rank within the chain of
command who is willing to approve an exception.  
Procedures for everything are amended all the time,
and those amendments most often result from
unique circumstances encountered by police
officers.  

Your Responsibilities for Vehicles

Your department will have a separate written
procedure regarding vehicles; however, vehicles are
property, and the procedures for property and
vehicles will overlap.  For some reason, a lot of
police officers simply don't get the connection.  
Perhaps it's because a vehicle is an item of property
which is routinely left parked and unattended
making the issue of custody less obvious to some.

As a patrol officer, you'll be handling situations
involving vehicles all the time.  One rule of thumb
would be whenever you take people out of their
vehicles and arrest them, those vehicles become
your responsibility.  However, everything has an
exception:

You respond to a suspect's home in possession of
an arrest warrant for the suspect regarding an
earlier assault.  When you arrive at the suspect's
home, you observe him entering his car which is
parked in the driveway of his home.

You block the driveway with your vehicle, before the
suspect has an opportunity to leave the driveway.  
You subsequently remove the suspect from his
vehicle, and you arrest him.

What is your responsibility regarding the suspect's
vehicle?  Since the vehicle has no connection with
the crime regarding the arrest warrant, your only
responsibility would be to ensure the vehicle is
secure, before you take the suspect away.  The
vehicle was and remains on the suspect's private
property.

This whole picture would change if you arrive only to
see the suspect backing from his driveway.  You
catch up to the suspect a block from his home, and
you stop him in a traffic lane.  Now...the suspect's
vehicle is clearly in your custody, and it's your
responsibility.  Or...when the suspect sees your
signals for him to pull over, he drives onto a parking
lot, and he parks his vehicle in a space out of the
parking lot's traffic lane.  The car is still your
responsibility, because your action caused him to
stop no matter if the vehicle is legally parked.

The suspect has a friend with him in the car.  The
friend is a licensed driver, and the suspect wants his
friend to take custody of the car.  Is the friend's
name on the car's registration?  Likely not.  No...the
car is still in your custody.  Had the friend been
driving the suspect's car when you stopped them,
the custody of the car wouldn't even be a
question.  You'd simply take the suspect, and you'd
leave the car with the friend.

You're only a block from the suspect's home, and
he asks that his wife, who is at home, take
possession of the car.  Again, the wife's name must
be on the registration.  Bottom line...never release
a vehicle to anyone other than a registered owner.  
Again, there are exceptions.  In the instance of
commercially owned vehicles, you can release
vehicles to authorized employees.
A lot of police officers get into trouble for the way
they handle, or don't handle, the property of
others.  Whether it's a deficiency in training or just
laziness, some police officers simply don't
appreciate their obvious, or not so obvious,
responsibilities when they come into possession or
custody of property under varying circumstances.
Police officers can be sympathetic toward people
without bending or breaking rules:

You're a new, young male police officer, and you
stop a suspected drunk driver.  You quickly observe
the driver is loaded.  The driver is also a young,
attractive woman.  As drunks go, she's a pretty
good drunk.  She's polite and not abusive in any
way.  She fails every sobriety test, and there's no
question about arresting her.

She begs you not to tow her father's car.  Here's
where your compassion, or better said your
stupidity, gets the better of you.  You make your
first mistake by moving her car onto a parking lot
adjacent to where you stopped her.  You make your
second mistake by not noticing a large sign posted
on the side of a building stating, "Unauthorized
Vehicles Towed at Owner's Expense."
The arrest goes smoothly, and you even get a
couple of hours of overtime as a result.  The next
day, you report for work where your sergeant goes
up one side of you and down the other.  You learn
that the pretty girl's car was towed by a less than
reputable towing service.  After the girl's father
recovered from the shock of the ridiculously
expensive towing and storage charge, he found
that both his laptop computer and digital camera
were missing from the trunk of the car.

Do you see where I'm going with this?  This kind of
stuff really happens, and you never want to
experience such easily preventable mistakes.
Towing Vehicles

Every police department contracts with a towing
company(s) to tow vehicles recovered by police
officers.  In the case of traffic accidents, your
department may allow the drivers/owners of
vehicles involved in an accident to contact their own
towing services if those towing services can arrive
at the accident scene within a specified time.

The Vehicle Inventory Report

Every time you're responsible for towing a vehicle
under any circumstance, you'll be required to
prepare a towed vehicle report.  Within that report,
you should always include your inventory of the
vehicle's contents.

People often carry items of value inside their
vehicles.  Your inventory search should extend to
every reasonably accessible area within a vehicle to
locate items of value.  Even though a vehicle trunk
normally contains a spare tire, jack, and lug wrench,
you should indicate, in your report, the presence of
these items.  Conversely, if one or more of these
items are not present, your report should list that
fact.

When you locate items of obvious value, you should
remove those items and submit them to your
evidence/property unit for safekeeping.  If you've
ever had your own vehicle towed and stored at an
impound lot, you should know that the security of
your vehicle is seldom a top priority.  In most
jurisdictions, the vehicle storage areas are operated
by agencies other than the police department.

Vehicle Inventory Search and the
Court Room

A vehicle inventory search is a perfectly legitimate
search of any vehicle which you are about to have
towed.  Along with items of value, some of your
searches will reveal the presence of contraband
such as drugs and guns.

Unfortunately, some officers will only conduct an
inventory search when they suspect the vehicle may
contain some kind of contraband.  When these
officers do find contraband, they'll list it as being
recovered during an inventory search.  What they
almost always omit is any reference to the rest of
the inventory search such as the presence of
standard items like the tire, jack, etc.  They don't
even mention the absence of any items of value.  
No...the only thing listed will be the seized
contraband.

Lawyers aren't stupid.  As you sit on that witness
stand, they'll point out all your omissions.  The
lawyer may ask you, "How many vehicles have you
towed in the last six months?"  "How many items of
value did you recover from those vehicles and
submit for safekeeping."  The lawyer will end up
alleging that the inventory search was just a cover
for you to conduct an unlawful search.  If your
cross examination goes the way of most, the judge
will agree with the lawyer.

On the other hand, if you develop the good habit of
regularly conducting vehicle inventory searches and
properly documenting them as I've described, your
inventory searches will be as solid as if you were
conducting every one of them with a search and
seizure warrant.

If you really want to establish your credibility on
inventory searches, you should make copies of your
towed vehicle reports and keep them in a loose leaf
folder.  When you're ask questions on the stand
regarding your past inventory searches, you simply
open your folder and begin counting the instances
for your response.  During the pause as you count,
the judge may well ask you what you're doing.  
Once you answer the judge's question, the lawyer
will most likely respond by stating, "No more
questions."  
"Your police department should have a pretty
well detailed written procedure regarding how
to submit property as either evidence or for
safekeeping." ~ Barry M. Baker
Police and
Property
Copyright © 2018  Barry M. Baker  
CareerPoliceOfficer.com
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