This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C9-00-2060

 

State of Minnesota,

Respondent,

 

vs.

 

Scott Frederick Kretz,

Appellant.

 

Filed September 18, 2001

Affirmed

Gordon W. Shumaker

 

Hennepin County District Court

File No. 00026321

 

 

 

Mike Hatch, Attorney General, Suite 500, 525 Park Street, St. Paul, MN 55103-2106; and

 

Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Donna J. Wolfson, Assistant County Attorney, C-2000 Government Center, Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent)

 

John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Jodie L. Carlson, Assistant Public Defender, 2829 University Avenue Southeast, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)

 

 

 

            Considered and decided by Crippen, Presiding Judge, Schumacher, Judge, and Shumaker, Judge.

 

 

U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N

 

GORDON W. SHUMAKER, Judge

 

Appellant Scott Frederick Kretz challenges the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress a handgun obtained during an inventory search of his vehicle.  Because the inventory search was conducted according to standardized police procedure, we affirm.

FACTS

 

            The state charged Scott Frederick Kretz with carrying a weapon without a permit in violation of Minn. Stat. § 624.714, subd. 1(a) (1998).  Kretz pleaded not guilty and the matter was set for trial.  Before trial, Kretz moved to suppress the handgun the police removed from his vehicle during a stop for a traffic violation and to suppress statements he made to various police officers.  The district court denied Kretz’s motion, ruling that the search was lawful as an inventory search or, alternatively, to confirm ownership of certain personal belongings.  The parties then submitted the matter for bench trial on the following stipulated facts.

            On March 17, 2000, at approximately 12:40 a.m., Minneapolis police officers Dunphy and McCarver observed a Lincoln Continental stopped at a red light.  The officers ran a license plate check of the vehicle and learned that the plates were registered to an Isuzu Trooper automobile.  The officers stopped the car.  The driver produced a valid Minnesota driver’s license indicating that he was Scott Frederick Kretz. 

            The officers determined that the vehicle was not registered to Kretz, but that Kretz was in the process of purchasing the vehicle from his friend.  The officers advised Kretz that the vehicle displayed improper plates and would be towed to an impound lot.  Kretz asked the officers to retrieve for him certain personal items from the vehicle, namely, a car seat, an air pump, and a black briefcase. 

            Officer Dunphy searched and inventoried the contents of the vehicle and removed the requested items.  During the search, he discovered a loaded semi-automatic handgun in the briefcase.  Kretz acknowledged that he owned the handgun and admitted that he did not have a permit to carry it.  Because of a prior gross misdemeanor conviction, Kretz was charged with the enhanced felony offense of carrying a weapon without a permit.

            The district court found Kretz guilty of the charge.  Alleging as error the court’s refusal to suppress the handgun, Kretz appeals.

D E C I S I O N

 

            Kretz argues that the district court erred in refusing to suppress the handgun because the warrantless search of the briefcase was outside the scope of the inventory search.  He contends that Officer Dunphy was not following standard inventory procedure when he agreed to return the car seat, air pump, and briefcase to Kretz; therefore, those items could not be searched under the guise of an inventory search or to verify ownership of the items.[1]  The state argues that this search was a valid inventory search.

When reviewing a pretrial suppression ruling where the facts are not in dispute, this court determines whether the evidence requires suppression as a matter of law.  State v. Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d 218, 221 (Minn. 1992).  Questions of law receive de novo review.  State v. Camacho, 561 N.W.2d 160, 170 (Minn. 1997).

Minnesota law makes it unlawful to operate, drive, or park an improperly registered vehicle on a public street.  Minn. Stat. §§ 169.79; 169.01, subd. 29 (2000) (defining “street or highway”).  Officer Dunphy testified that Kretz was driving a vehicle that displayed license plates registered to another vehicle.  This observed traffic offense provided an adequate basis for stopping the vehicle.  There is no dispute as to the propriety of the act of impoundment itself.

An inventory search of an impounded vehicle has long been recognized as an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.  City of St. Paul v. Myles, 298 Minn. 298, 305, 218 N.W.2d 697, 701 (1974).  Inventory searches do not require probable cause.  State v. Holmes, 569 N.W.2d 181, 186 (Minn. 1997).  However, an inventory search may not be “a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 4, 110 S. Ct. 1632, 1635 (1990).  Immediate on-the-scene inventories prior to a car’s impoundment have been justified as necessary to protect the owner’s property, to insure against claims of loss, and to guard the police from potential danger.  Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 372, 107 S. Ct. 738, 741 (1987).

The validity of an inventory search depends on whether it was conducted in accordance with standard police procedures and primarily to inventory, rather than to investigate, the contents of the vehicle.  Holmes, 569 N.W.2d at 188.  Inventory procedures must be administered in good faith.  Bertine, 479 U.S. at 374, 107 S. Ct. at 742.

Officer Dunphy testified that department policy mandates that a tow and impound sheet be completed on every vehicle towed in the city of Minneapolis.  He testified that department policy requires him to search and inventory the contents of the passenger compartment, glove box, and trunk, and all containers contained in those prescribed spaces, if force is not necessary to open them.

In completing the inventory search, the officer searched the interior of the car, the glove compartment, and the trunk.  Inside the trunk the officer opened and searched the closed, soft-sided briefcase.  He testified that he opened the briefcase  “to establish ownership of the briefcase,” “for my safety,” and to look for “anything of value.” See Holmes, 569 N.W.2d at 187 (holding an inventory search is not unlawful merely because police may also have an investigatory motive).  Inside the briefcase he discovered and seized a loaded handgun.

The officer testified that Kretz informed him that he lived “a couple of blocks away” and requested certain personal items from the vehicle.  The officer agreed to retrieve the items from the vehicle after completing his inventory search.  He noted that his department’s policy did not require him to release the requested items, but he decided to return the items to Kretz because he was cooperative.

Kretz argues that Officer Dunphy was acting outside standard police procedure when he exercised his discretion and agreed to release the car seat, air pump, and briefcase.  Kretz claims that the release of these items violated standardized procedures, and thus the search of the briefcase was outside the scope of the inventory search. 

In Wells, 495 U.S. at 2, 4-5, 110 S. Ct. at 1634-35, the Supreme Court upheld the suppression of a garbage bag containing marijuana that was discovered after a highway patrolman opened a locked suitcase during an inventory search.  The court held that because the evidence was discovered in a closed container and the highway patrol had no policy regarding the opening of closed containers during an inventory search, the search was not sufficiently regulated to satisfy the Fourth Amendment.  Id. at 4-5, 110 S. Ct. at 1635.  Although the court in Wells noted that the police should be afforded some discretion during inventory searches, in the absence of any specific policy, the highway patrolman’s search violated the Fourth Amendment.  Id.

Unlike Wells, here Officer Dunphy’s opening of the briefcase was conducted under the police department’s policy that containers in impounded vehicles be opened and the contents inventoried.  It was in the course of executing the police department’s policy directive that the officer discovered the handgun.  Thus, Officer Dunphy acted within the proper parameters of department policy when executing the inventory search.  The fact that the officer agreed to release some items to Kretz after the search did not violate the policy.  Therefore, we conclude that the inventory search of the vehicle did not violate Kretz’s Fourth Amendment rights and that the district court did not err in denying Kretz’s suppression motion.

            Affirmed.



[1] The district court’s alternative basis for holding the search valid was that it was a search to verify ownership of the briefcase.  The state concedes that a search to determine ownership of an item is not a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.