What is an Inventory Search?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

An inventory search is conducted by law enforcement in connection with an arrest.
An inventory search is conducted by law enforcement in connection with an arrest.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@hamje32: The problem is that they don't need probable cause to make an inventory search. They only need to have had reasonable cause to impound the vehicle (that may have no relation to suspicion of criminal evidence therein). And the impounding may not even be related to an arrest. To search a non-impounded vehicle, they need probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of a crime -- not so in relation to an inventory search.

@miriam98: I don't think anyone other than people interested in criminal procedure are often looking up the definition of "inventory search," which is a major category of permissible suspicionless searches considered reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. They take an inventory of every item within the vehicle, and if it just happens to be evidence of a crime, well, too bad for the owner.


@allenJo - I had always thought an inventory search was product related. This is the last paragraph in the article; it’s the definition that is most intuitive, to me anyway.

With so much stuff online it’s common for people to conduct searches of online stores to see if the products they want to buy are in stock.

That’s what I’ve always taken an inventory search to mean. I would think that any search of drug impounded vehicles would be referred to by something more specific than the generic moniker, “inventory search.”


@David09 - I don’t know the logistics of the inventory search but I am sure that more than one individual conducts the search, in order to prevent the scenario you described from happening.

As for what happens when the car gets turned back to the original owner, I think that begs an obvious question. Does the car ever get returned?

If it’s a drug seizure, I would say no, in which case the inventory search is irrelevant as far as any claims made by the owner are concerned, as he is not getting his stuff back, either the car or the stuff in it.

However, the inventory would still be relevant for criminal prosecution purposes so it makes sense there.


@hamje32 - That makes sense. Yeah, I’ve never doubted that the police could make an inventory search. The most sensible explanation, as given in the article, is that they are trying to cover themselves and make sure you can’t claim anything was stolen.

But what if it’s a drug arrest? Could it be possible that a not so honest officer could pilfer some street drugs off the car without anyone knowing it?

I am sure there are some checks in place to prevent that but I just wonder because it seems that he is the only one conducting the inventory search. If only one person does the books, then that person can shuffle the numbers around, so to speak.


There’s nothing here about a car inventory search that should come as big surprise to anyone. That cops can search an impounded vehicle seems to make perfect sense.

After all, they can search your vehicle even if it’s not impounded. Let’s say you’re driving late at night and the cop pulls you over. Maybe you were driving too fast or too erratic or whatever.

Whatever the cause, he had a reason. He may ask you a few questions, give you a ticket – and even ask you to pop open the trunk of your car. Does he have a right?

He sure does, if he can prove he had “probable cause.” That’s the catch phrase. The law gives him the benefit of the doubt as to what the probable cause is.

So if he can search your car during a routine traffic stop, you can sure bet he can search the inventory of your car if it’s impounded for an arrest.

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