Anniversary of South Dakota v. Opperman: The Creation of Inventory Searches

Today marks the 41st anniversary of the landmark decision of South Dakota v. Opperman[1][2] in which the Supreme Court laid out the basis for what would be known as the Inventory search exception to the warrant requirement of the fourth amendment. This decision has allowed for a dramatic expansion in the number of warrantless searches the State can conduct.


The Case

The case that made up the basis of Opperman was surprisingly mundane, and yet indicative of the kind of cases that would be affected by this landmark ruling. In the early morning hours of December 10th, 1973, Mr. Opperman’s car was found illegally parked in downtown Vermillion, South Dakota. Pursuant to police procedures, the officers impounded the vehicle. However, as the officers impounded the car, they noticed a number of valuable items strewn about the interior of the vehicle. The officers, fearing that the items could be stolen opened the vehicle and inventoried the items inside of it. While searching the interior of the vehicle, the officers found a small amount of marijuana located in the glovebox. When Mr. Opperman came to the police station to retrieve his vehicle the following day, he was arrested on the spot for possession of marijuana.
At Trial, Opperman argued that the marijuana evidence should be suppressed because the police searched his car without a warrant in violation of the fourth amendment and alleged that the warrantless search of his vehicle was unreasonable. The trial court ruled against Mr. Opperman, and he was sentenced to 14 days in jail and a $100 fine. Mr. Opperman appealed his conviction and eventually had his conviction reversed by the South Dakota Supreme Court[3] who held that the search had been unreasonable and thus in violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, the South Dakota Supreme Court requested the United States Supreme Court grant certiorari to review the case. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and rendered its judgment on July 6th, 1976.

The Argument

The States argument at the Supreme Court was the culmination of decades of State and Federal Appellate Court decisions. For decades following the inspection of the car Courts had made a distinction between searches of Homes and Automobiles. Due to car’s inherently mobile nature and stringent regulations, the public had a diminished expectation of privacy for their cars. Further, courts had recognized that police officers had community care taking functions beyond law enforcement such as removing disabled or damaged vehicles from the road. Police typically followed standard department operating procedures on how and when they were to impound vehicles, and such seizures of vehicles had long been found to not be “unreasonable” and thus not a violation of the fourth amendment.

Thus, the State argued that when police impound a vehicle, it wouldn’t make sense to give them authority to seize the vehicle, but not search the vehicle. Because vehicle seizures were “reasonable” under the fourth amendment when police acted in a community caretaking function, it would follow that a search of the seized vehicle would also be “reasonable” under the fourth amendment if they acted under that same function.

Mr. Opperman argued that the search of his vehicle was unreasonable, and thus required a warrant, and because the State failed to obtain a warrant before conducting the “unreasonable” search the State violated the fourth amendment.

The Decision

The Supreme Court, in a 5 – 4 decision, led by the Conservative majority delivered its opinion written by Chief Justice Burger on July 6th, 1976. The Court held that when police seize a vehicle they may search the vehicle without violating the fourth amendment just as they may do with all containers. The Court went on to say that the rational for allowing these searches was twofold, first it was meant to protect police officers from unknown dangers that may be contained within a vehicle held by the police. The second justification was to protect the property of the individual whose vehicle had been impounded from loss or theft.

The Court decision established that, so long as police have a properly constructed department policy for impounding and inventorying a vehicle the search of the vehicle would be reasonable under the fourth amendment. The decision expanded upon the prior case of Cady v. Dombrowski[4][5] in which the Supreme Court had upheld the warrantless search of an impounded vehicle under similar circumstances for public safety. Finally, The Court reversed the decision of the South Dakota Supreme Court and upheld Mr. Opperman’s conviction for possession of marijuana.

Subsequent Developments and Conclusion

The decision in Opperman laid the groundwork for what has become the most routine and widespread exception to the fourth amendment’s warrant requirement.  The Supreme Court would go on to extend the scope of the inventory search to include bags and purses that are inventoried from a suspect when they are arrested in Illinois v. Lafayette[6][7]. Today the question presented and the principle reasoning in Opperman are no longer debated by legal scholars or the Supreme Court. Only the scope of inventory searches is litigated in courts today.

While the principles laid out in Opperman are accepted as law today, people must be vigilant about the ever-growing list of exceptions to the warrant requirement, or face a world in which the exceptions have engulfed the rule.

Written by Hunter White

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[1] South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 96 S. Ct. 3092 (1976)


[3] State v. Opperman, 89 S.D. 25, 228 N.W.2d 152 (1975)


[5] Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 93 S. Ct. 2523 (1973)

[6] Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640, 103 S. Ct. 2605 (1983)