479 U. S. 367
January 14, 1987
Steven Lee Bertine was arrested by the police for drunk driving. The police impounded Bertine’s car after his arrest. In accordance with police procedure, a warrantless inventory of the car’s contents was taken first. An officer opened a backpack in the car and found cocaine. Bertine tried to suppress this evidence on the ground that the search of the backpack violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Although the Supreme Court had previously allowed warrantless inventory searches following arrest, it had not yet allowed for containers to be opened in the course of those searches.
Rehnquist wrote the Court’s 7-2 decision, upholding the backpack search. He explained that inventory searches were necessary because they protected the owner’s property, forestalled claims of lost property, and guarded police from potentially dangerous material. Rehnquist said that these interests outweighed the privacy interest associated with a container in a car. He also rejected the claim that the search was unconstitutional because the decision to impound had been a discretionary one. That police procedure made it an option was enough. Blackmun, joined by Powell and O’Connor, wrote a brief concurrence, highlighting that inventory searches must be conducted according to standardized procedure to withstand Constitutional scrutiny.
Marshall dissented, and was joined by Brennan. He felt that the police had far too much discretion in deciding whether or not to inventory and impound, which opened up a door for police mischief. Marshall also felt that Rehnquist exaggerated the state’s interest in conducting car inventories. He contended that only the need to protect the owner’s property was a legitimate interest, and that it did not outweigh the privacy interests associated with a closed container. For me, this case is a tough call, but I lean toward the dissent’s view. I don’t think a drunk driving arrest should grant police a blank check to search containers – the public interest is just not sufficient.