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Was the Police Search of the Vehicle Legal?

In a recent case in the City of St. Louis Circuit Court, our client was arrested and charged with Unlawful Use of a Weapon (UUW). The client was initially charged with the traffic violation "Improper start from a stopped position" and was subsequently removed from his vehicle and placed in handcuffs. Incident to the arrest, an inventory search of the client's vehicle was conducted. The State alleged that during the search, a St. Louis City police officer located the weapon underneath the center console of our client's vehicle. The weapon was not in plain view and the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to believe that client's vehicle contained illegal contraband. The search was solely conducted for the purpose of inventorying the vehicle's contents. Client's vehicle was not seized by the police department or towed from the scene. It was ultimately retrieved by an acquaintance of the client.

Fighting Back Against Illegal Searches

The main issue in this case was whether or not the search was legal. Generally speaking, searches without a warrant signed by a judge are not authorized in Missouri. An exception to the constitution protects against warrantless searches and seizures is an inventory search of a motor vehicle. This exception permits a law enforcement officer to make a warrantless search of a lawfully seized vehicle, provided that it is conducted according to standardize criteria or an established routine adopted by the law enforcement agency conducting the search. An inventory search is valid where reasonable police regulations for inventory procedures are administered in good faith. The purpose of the inventory search exception is threefold:

  1. The protection of the vehicle owner's property
  2. The protection of the police from false claims of lost property
  3. The protection of the police from potential danger.

The Court reviewed the deposition testimony of the officer who conducted the search and ruled that he failed to follow standardized criteria or an established routine. The officer admitted that he was unsure if the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department had a policy governing inventory searches and was unsure of any established routine used by officers on the Department. Accordingly, the Court ruled the search and seizure of the weapon violated the client's rights granted to him by The United States and Missouri Constitutions. The evidence (the weapon) was suppressed and the case was dismissed by the State.

If you are charged with possession of illegal contraband resulting from a car stop in the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, Jefferson County, St. Charles or Franklin County, give the attorneys at Millikan Wright, LLC a call for a free consultation to determine if the search was legal.

Categories: Criminal Defense

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