South Dakota v. Opperman Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Respondent’s, Opperman (Respondent), vehicle was impounded for a traffic violation. Without a warrant, the police inventoried the contents of Respondent’s vehicle and found marijuana in the glove box.

Facts of the case

The respondent, Donald Opperman, left his car unattended in a prohibited parking space in violation of local ordinances in Vermillion, South Dakota. He received two parking tickets from local police officers, and as a result, his vehicle was subsequently inspected and impounded. At the impound lot, a police officer observed personal items in the dashboard of the car and unlocked the door to inventory the items using standard procedures. In the unlocked glove compartment, the officer found marijuana in a plastic bag. Opperman was arrested later that day and charged with possession of marijuana. He was convicted but the Supreme Court of South Dakota reversed on appeal and concluded the search was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Question

Without a warrant, are police allowed to inventory a vehicle that is lawfully impounded for a traffic violation?

Answer

Yes. Impounded vehicles can be inventoried where the process is carried out to secure the vehicle and its contents.

Conclusion

On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment. The Court reasoned that the owner, having left his car illegally parked for an extended period and thus subject to impoundment, was not present to make other arrangements for the safekeeping of his belongings. Further, the inventory itself was prompted by the presence in plain view of a number of valuables inside the car. The Court held that there was no suggestion whatever that the standard procedure was a pretext concealing an investigatory police motive. The Court concluded that in following standard police procedures the conduct of the police was not unreasonable under Fourth Amendment.

  • Case Brief: 1976
  • Petitioner: South Dakota
  • Respondent: Opperman
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 428 US 364 (1976)
Argued: Mar 29, 1976
Decided: Jul 6, 1976