Oral Argument Preview: Validity of the Search of an Arrestee’s Purse. State of Ohio v. Jamie Banks-Harvey.

Read an analysis of the argument in this case here.

On April 6, 2017, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State of Ohio v. Jamie Banks-Harvey. At issue in this case is whether police officers are permitted to search the contents of an arrestee’s purse after she is handcuffed and placed in a cruiser, but before she is taken to jail or incarcerated. This case will be argued at Morgan High School in Morgan County as part of the court’s off-site program.

Case Background

Appellant, Jamie Banks-Harvey, was pulled over for speeding by Highway Patrol Trooper Matthew Keener. Banks-Harvey was driving with two passengers, Charles Hall (owner of the car and Banks-Harvey’s boyfriend), and a Ms. Holcomb. Banks-Harvey did not have a license, and showed Trooper Keener an Ohio ID card. Keener learned that Banks-Harvey had an outstanding warrant from Montgomery County for possession of heroin.

Trooper Keener removed Banks-Harvey from the car, patted her down, and placed her in the back of his cruiser. While waiting for confirmation of the warrant on Banks-Harvey, Keener returned to the car and spoke to Hall and Holcomb. Keener later testified that during this conversation, he observed a gel capsule on the car’s floorboard; he believed the capsule to contain heroin.

Trooper Keener returned to his cruiser and received confirmation that the warrant on Banks-Harvey was active. Banks-Harvey was then handcuffed and placed under arrest. Upon learning that Holcomb had a drug-paraphernalia warrant, she was also arrested and placed in the  cruiser with Banks-Harvey. Hall had a valid license and no warrants. At some point during the arrests of Banks-Harvey and Holcomb, Officer O’Neal, a local police officer, arrived at the scene.

After he had arrested the two women, Trooper Keener returned to the car, removed Banks-Harvey’s purse from between the seats, placed it on the hood of the cruiser, and searched it.  Keener asked Hall for consent to search the car; Hall refused. Banks-Harvey was not asked for and did not give consent for her purse to be searched.

Trooper Keener found substances in Banks-Harvey’s purse that he believed to be cocaine and heroin. This was later confirmed by field tests conducted by Keener at the post. Keener also found needles and a glass pipe. At the conclusion of the stop, Hall was permitted to drive away with the car.

After the drugs and drug paraphernalia were discovered, Officer O’Neal told Trooper Keener that he had seen a gel capsule on the floor of the passenger side of the automobile. A search of the car by O’Neal uncovered several gelcaps and a needle under Holcomb’s seat.

Banks-Harvey was indicted for possession of heroin, cocaine, drug paraphernalia, and drug abuse instruments. She moved to suppress the evidence found in her purse.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress the evidence. The trial court found that Trooper Keener did not have probable cause to search the car or the purse, discrediting Keener’s testimony that he saw the gel capsule before removing the purse from the car. However, the trial court found that Officer O’Neal did see the gel capsule and thus admitted the drugs and paraphernalia from the purse under the inevitable discovery doctrine.

Banks-Harvey pled no contest to all counts of the indictment, and was sentenced to three years of community-control, including completion of an inpatient treatment program. She appealed the denial of her motion to suppress.

In a split decision authored by Judge Hendrickson and joined by Judge Ringland, the 12th District held that the evidence should not have been admitted under the inevitable discovery doctrine, but that removal of the purse from the car and its subsequent search was done pursuant to standard Highway Patrol procedures, and thus the evidence from the purse was properly admitted as a valid inventory search. Judge Michael Powell dissented. He would find that the Highway Patrol inventory search policy as described by Trooper Keener violated the Fourth Amendment.

Votes to Accept the Case

Yes: Justices Kennedy, O’Neill, O’Donnell, and French

No: Chief Justice O’Connor and Justices Lanzinger and Pfeifer

Key Precedent

Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution (The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.)

Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution (The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and possessions, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched and the person and things to be seized.)

Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009) (Search incident to arrest exception to 4th Amendment warrant requirement did not justify the search of arrestee’s vehicle after arrestee was handcuffed and locked in the back of the police cruiser. “Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.”)

Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993) (“[S]eizures ‘conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject to only a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions.’”)

South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976) (Routine practices of securing and inventorying the contents of an automobile serves three distinct needs: (1) the protection of the owner’s property while it remains in police custody, (2) the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, and (3) the protection of the police from potential danger.)

Banks-Harvey’s Argument

Searches and seizures conducted outside of the judicial process are per se unreasonable with a few specific exceptions. A policy adopted by the Highway Patrol cannot legitimatize unconstitutional police action. To be authorized as an inventory search, the police officer must be acting to protect the owner’s property while it remains in police custody, to protect the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, or to protect the police from potential danger. No such justification existed in this case. The trooper searched the purse to discover weapons and contraband, not to protect its contents or to avoid false claims. Therefore, the warrantless search of Banks-Harvey’s purse cannot be justified as an administrative inventory search.

The court of appeals also failed to consider whether Trooper Keener was authorized to seize the purse in the first place. A prerequisite to the inventory search of a car is the lawful impoundment of that car. Here, the car was not impounded. Keener had already verified that Hall had no warrants and had a valid license and registration.  Hall refused permission to search the car. Keener had no right to remove the purse from the car. He could not have been concerned about his safety, as Banks-Harvey was already secured in the back seat of the cruiser, and there was therefore no way she could destroy any evidence.

State’s Argument

The written policy of the Ohio State Highway Patrol was that the personal property of an arrestee accompanies the arrestee to jail. Banks-Harvey’s purse properly should have accompanied her to jail, and Trooper Keener properly conducted an inventory search in accordance with this policy.

This evidence was admissible because the search was reasonable under the inventory search exception and because the contents of the purse would have been inevitably discovered in the subsequent search, either of the car or when Banks-Harvey was booked.

Inventory searches are administrative or caretaking functions, not investigatory functions. To satisfy the Fourth Amendment, inventory searches must be made in good faith, and in accordance with reasonable standardized procedures, and not as a pretext for an evidentiary search. Such searches are not limited to automobile searches, and can include personal effects of a person under a lawful arrest. That was the situation here. Trooper Keener was operating under standard Highway Patrol procedures, and satisfied the governmental interests of protecting Keener from dangerous instrumentalities, safeguarding Banks-Harvey’s property, and ensuring against claims of lost, stolen, or damaged property. Nothing in Keener’s conduct suggested the search was pretextual.

Alternatively, the inevitable discovery doctrine applies here as an independent basis to uphold the purse search, either during the search of Hall’s car or at the jail. The trial court so found, and that decision should be upheld.

Banks-Harvey’s Proposed Proposition of Law

Because the mere adoption of a policy by the Highway Patrol to retrieve and inventory the belongings of an arrested person cannot authorize unconstitutional police action, the warrantless entry into a car to retrieve the purse of an already-arrested person and the subsequent warrantless removal and search of that purse violates the Fourth Amendment and Section 14, Article I of the Ohio Constitution.

State’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law

When conducted pursuant to standard policy or procedure, the seizure and search of an arrestee’s purse before the arrestee is taken to jail or incarcerated falls within the inventory search exception to the warrant requirement and does not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution or Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution. When the State’s evidence establishes that the seizure and search fall within the inventory search exception and further establishes that the contraband found in the purse would have been inevitably discovered in a lawful search of the vehicle and/or a search of the arrestee’s belongings at the jail, a trial court properly does not suppress the evidence.

Amicus in Support of State

Amicus Ohio Attorney General, Michael DeWine, argued that the search of Banks-Harvey’s purse was reasonable. The Ohio State Highway Patrol’s inventory policy requires that personal property of an arrestee go with the arrestee; as such, troopers must inventory it. This policy is proper because public arrests necessitate inventory searches; the policy was followed in the search of Banks-Harvey’s purse.  Had the officers entrusted the purse to the third-party owner of the car, they would have faced the risk of a lawsuit, and the trooper investigated the purse to ensure that contraband was not transported to the jail. Additionally, since purses are immediately associated with the arrestee’s person, the trooper acted properly in searching the purse before returning it to Banks-Harvey’s control.

The AG submits this proposed proposition of law:

Securing and searching an arrestee’s personal effects, such as a purse or wallet, is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Section, 14, Article I of the Ohio Constitution.

Student Contributor: Connie Kremer


This entry was posted in Constitutional Law, Criminal Law and Procedure, Ohio Supreme Court Watch, Oral Argument Preview, Student Contributors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.