Supreme Court Throws Out Evidence Found in Warrantless 'Inventory Search'

In State v. Newcomb, 161 N.H. 666 (2011), an appeal won by Ted Lothstein, the New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed a lower court's order upholding the warrantless search of the locked cargo area of a rented U-Haul truck. The Kensington Police had arrested the U-Haul driver for criminal trespass. Like most police departments, Kensington has a policy allowing so-called 'inventory searches' which are post-arrest searches of vehicles in order to make a list of the driver's personal property in the vehicle. This is supposed to protect the driver from theft by the tow company or other third party that takes custody of the vehicle, and protect the police from false claims of theft.

Kensington's policy allowed only searches of "unlocked areas and containers," with two exceptions: a locked glove compartment, and a locked trunk. The lower court had reasoned that the cargo area of a U-Haul truck is the equivalent of the trunk of a passenger vehicle. But the Supreme Court held that the lower court literally 'stretched' the analogy too far -- a trunk is defined as the "luggage compartment of an automobile," while a U-Haul cargo truck is "much larger than the average trunk and is intended to carry significantly more cargo," and unlike any car's trunk that I have ever seen, the U-Haul's cargo area is locked with a padlock.

Accordingly, Mr. Newcomb faced only the relatively minor misdemeanor offense, criminal trespass, and was saved from the much more serious charges that arose from the unlawful search of his U-Haul truck.

State v. Newcomb, 161 N.H. 666

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