Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.
Police and property recovery or seizures can cause police officers problems 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 don’t fulfil their responsibilities regarding custody of property..
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. Just remember that whatever property you return to anyone should be documented and signed for by the owner.
Police and Property Scenario
You’re on foot patrol at a strip mall when you hear a woman screaming. Not more than 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 are 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.
The Property comes into Your Possession – Police and Property
On the other hand, let’s say the suspect held onto to the bag. You chase him for three blocks, before you apprehended him along with the property. You eventually get back to the victim along with the handbag, and 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.
A Little More Complicated
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. The procedure 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.
Responsibility for Vehicles – Police and Property
Your department will have a separate written procedure regarding vehicles. 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. The issue of custody becomes less obvious to some.
As a patrol officer, you’ll be handling situations involving vehicles all the time. 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. You arrive at the suspect’s home, and you observe him entering his car which is parked in the driveway of his home.
Taking Custody of Vehicles
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? 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. 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.
Don’t Release Vehicles to others who are not Registered Owners
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? It likely is not, so 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.
Compassion or Stupidity – Police and Property
You’re a new, young male police officer, and you stop a suspected drunk driver. You quickly observe that the driver is intoxicated. The driver is also a young, attractive woman, and 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, and 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.
Every police department contracts with a towing company(s) to tow vehicles recovered by police officers. Your department may allow the drivers/owners of vehicles involved in an accident to contact their own towing services. There’s usually a requirement that the driver’s towing service must arrive 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. A vehicle trunk normally contains a spare tire, jack, and lug wrench, and 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
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 other property in the vehicle.
They don’t even mention the absence of any items of value. The only property listed will be the seized contraband.
The Court Room – Police and Property
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, you develop the good habit of regularly conducting vehicle inventory searches and properly documenting them. 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 folder. When you’re asked questions on the stand regarding your past inventory searches, you simply open your folder and begin counting them. 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’s response will be, “No more questions.”
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