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

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

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
"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
Copyright © 2016  Barry M. Baker