Arizona v. Gant and Inventory Searches: A Good Subject of Empirical Study, Or Not

A little while back, I was considering whether to undertake an empirical study into whether law enforcement officers were relying on the inventory-search exception to the warrant requirement more often after the United States Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Arizona v. Gant, which pared back the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement insofar as it applies to vehicle searches.

Some have suggested that, given the number of exceptions to the warrant requirement that exist, the diminution of one exception will simply lead to the expansion of another. I thought that the post-Gant scenario would provide as good a setting as any to test this hypothesis, especially since it’s been said that officers are relying on the inventory-search exception to the warrant requirement more often in the wake of the Gant decision.

I decided not to perform the study, however, after a casual conversation with a local police officer. After I described the proposed inquiry to him, he said, in essence, “Don’t bother.” When I asked why, he told me that the numbers would almost certainly be skewed by the fact that the post-Gant era has coincided with substantial layoffs at local law enforcement agencies, due to the recession.

These layoffs would affect my results, the officer added, not only because they resulted in fewer officers, but also because (given last-hired, first-fired seniority rules) more recently hired officers were disproportionately affected by these cuts, and more recent additions to the force tend to be more eager than senior officers are to impound vehicles and perform inventory searches on them. And so, if the data reflected fewer inventory searches, or about the same number of searches, these totals might represent the recession-affected demographics of local police departments, as much as anything else.

I don’t know if what the officer told me was correct in every particular, but I thought it was interesting, and worth passing along as another reminder of how empirical studies can sometimes run into unexpected impediments.

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