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Jail inventory policy found unconstitutional

Meth possession case dropped as a result.
Richard Hanners

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on June 26, 2018 5:01PM

A recent ruling by the Oregon State Court of Appeals found the inventory policy at Grant County Jail to be unconstitutional in the case of a John Day man found to be in possession of methamphetamine.

The case of State v. Steele was brought to the attention of the Grant County Court by attorney Rob Raschio during the court’s June 13 meeting. Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter later told the Eagle the jail policy will need to be changed to address the issue.

“The jail policy needs to be revised and approved by the county court to be in compliance with Oregon law,” he said. “As this is a county policy, the county’s attorney would be the one to advise regarding necessary changes.”

The arrest

Anthony S. Steele, 53, was arrested May 9, 2015, by Oregon State Police Senior Trooper Cody Weaver after the Crook County Sheriff’s Office reported it had probable cause to arrest Steele for harassment.

During a search for needles or anything sharp, Weaver found a small, clear plastic bag in Steele’s coin pocket that contained methamphetamine. Steele was transported to the Grant County Jail and transferred to the custody of Deputy Pete DeRosier.

Weaver later testified that DeRosier typically conducts his own search at the jail “just to make sure that there’s no contraband on them before they bring them into the jail.”

Steele was charged with one count of possession of methamphetamine. His attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the methamphetamine was discovered during a warrantless search that did not fall within any of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.

The state countered that the methamphetamine was discovered by Weaver in accordance with an Oregon State Police policy of searching arrestees before placing them in a vehicle, and “the drugs inside the defendant’s coin pocket would inevitably have been discovered when the jail inventoried the defendant during the booking process.”

The hearing

During a hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress, the state introduced two excerpts from the jail’s inventory policy. Part B-103 stated that all inmates “will be pat searched or frisked searched ... immediately upon entering the facility,” and part B-301 stated that, during inventory, the booking deputy or arresting officer will remove “any items found from pockets, etc.”

DeRosier then testified about the policies. When asked by the defense counsel “if there was, say, a film canister or something in a pocket, you would open that and look in it?” DeRosier responded, “Absolutely.”

In closing, the defendant’s attorney argued that the jail policy “even if it was an authorized policy ... it’s an unlawful policy, it’s overbroad under both the (state and federal constitutions) because it does allow things such as searches of closed containers, according to Deputy DeRosier’s testimony.”

Grant County Circuit Court Judge William D. Cramer Jr. ruled against the motion to suppress. While he found that the search was not justified under the officer safety exception and was not a search related to the crime for which Steele was arrested, harassment, Cramer concluded that the methamphetamine inevitably would have been discovered during a search of Steele’s belongings at the jail.

On appeal, the defense argued that the inevitable discovery doctrine did not justify admission of the methamphetamine evidence “because the Grant County Jail inventory policy impermissibly authorizes searches of all closed containers” — even though Steele did not have a closed container on him when searched.

Citing precedent, the defense argued that “if any part of the inventory policy is invalid ... then any evidence discovered must be suppressed as part of an unlawful inventory.”

The state argued that the jail policy says nothing about searching closed containers. The testimony “shows that this particular deputy may have believed he was required to search all closed containers,” the state argued. “That does not speak to the requirements of the policy itself.”

The ruling

Writing for the appellate court, Judge Steven R. Powers cited precedent that the scope of an inventory “must be limited to that — an inventory,” and that an inventory policy “that requires police to open all closed containers, regardless of whether they are likely to contain valuables, is overbroad.”

Powers also noted that the state never raised the argument during the suppression hearing that DeRosier’s testimony did not establish that the jail policy was overbroad.

“That is, the state never attempted, by redirect examination, to qualify or clarify DeRosier’s admission or to offer any other evidence pertaining to the policy’s prescribed procedures for inspection of closed containers during intake,” Powers wrote.

While he concurred with Powers, Presiding Judge Joel DeVore noted in his separate conclusion that the defense did not show that Steele had suffered a deprivation of a substantial right.

“At least to me, to argue that defendant was harmed by an unconstitutional part of the policy that did not direct the inventory assumes too much,” he wrote.

The appellate court reversed Judge Cramer’s ruling and remanded the case. Following the ruling, Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter filed a motion to dismiss the possession charge, stating that he did not intend to retry the case.


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