An inventory search is a search conducted by law enforcement in connection with an impoundment or arrest. In the United States, where citizens are protected from warrantless searches, this search is an exemption to the rule. As long as an arrest or impoundment is lawful, a subsequent search is protected under the law. Material uncovered during the search can be used as evidence in a court of law.
There are several arguments for the protected status of an inventory search. The first is that when police make an arrest or impound a vehicle, they must conduct a search for dangerous items. This includes weapons, explosives, corrosive chemicals, and anything else that could be dangerous. Failure to do so could put people at risk of injury and may also result in the destruction of evidence.
In addition, an inventory search protects law enforcement from legal liability for lost, stolen, or missing items. As the search is conducted, every item found is logged and described. This list can be used in the event that someone claims that something was stolen while belongings were in the care of law enforcement. Law enforcement are required to secure and properly care for personal property in their control and an inventory search is a form of legal protection.
When someone is arrested, an inventory search of the person is conducted. People who are jailed following arrest will usually have belongings confiscated and held in storage, in which case they must sign a list to verify that everything was documented on the search. After release, the items can be claimed. If there is a discrepancy between the inventory list and the items returned, it must be explained.
A vehicle inventory search is conducted on an impounded vehicle for the purpose of listing and securing the contents. While law enforcement cannot search the vehicle for evidence of a crime, if they uncover evidence while inventorying the contents of an impounded car, it is legally valid evidence. As with a personal inventory search, the police must make a list of the items found in the car so that they can account for them when the car is released.