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Purse Searches & Traffic Stops
Mar 11, 2019

Purse Searches & Traffic Stops

By:  Sherri Bevan Walsh

Traffic stops conducted by law enforcement officers can potentially be extremely dangerous. The officer approaching a vehicle many times is not aware of the intentions of the occupants of the vehicle. Officers do their best to secure the situation – which could include conducting a search of the vehicle and its occupants. Not following some simple procedures could lead to evidence being thrown out and not allowed to be used in court.

When it comes to traffic stops, searches of purses can often become the source of suppression issues. A search will not be upheld as a search incident to arrest if the search is done while the driver is handcuffed and secured in a police vehicle at the time that her purse is retrieved from the vehicle and searched. The search will not fall within the plain-view exception to the search warrant requirement if there is no evidence that the purse possessed an incrimination character that was immediately apparent. In addition, the search likely will not fall within the inventory-search exception if the car that contained the purse is not impounded.  Therefore, even if agency policy permits you to retrieve and inventory an arrested person’s belongings, you should obtain a warrant prior to conducting a warrantless entry into a car to retrieve and search the purse of an already-arrested person. Failing to obtain a warrant may result in suppression of the evidence found in the purse.

For example, while conducting a traffic stop, you learn that the driver of the vehicle does not have a driver’s license. Instead, the driver provides you with her state identification card and explains that she is driving because the vehicle’s owner, who is a passenger in the vehicle, sustained an injury and is in need of medical attention. You conduct a pat-down search of the driver and place her in the rear of your cruiser. You learn that the driver and another female passenger have warrants for their arrest. They are taken to the jail.

            You advise the owner of the vehicle that the driver and the other passenger have warrants for their arrest and that is within your discretion to impound the vehicle. You seek consent to search the vehicle, however, the owner does not grant consent. At that time, you conduct an inventory search of the vehicle, during which you obtain the driver’s purse.

Your search of the purse reveals a baggy with ten yellow pills, three needles, one of which contained brown liquid, three clear capsules filled with brown powder, and three clear capsules filled with white powder. A subsequent search of the vehicle results in the retrieval of clear capsules and a needle.  No one is charged based upon anything found in the search of the vehicle, the vehicle is not impounded, and the owner is permitted to drive the vehicle away.  Based on the items found in the driver’s purse, she is charged with felony possession of drugs and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia and drug-abuse instruments. The evidence discovered in the purse will be suppressed because the search of the purse violated the driver’s rights under the Fourth Amendment. 

            The Ohio Supreme Court has held that retrieving a purse from a vehicle after the person’s identity has been confirmed and the person is under arrest and in a police vehicle, is an illegal search. Furthermore, the inevitable discovery exception to the discovery rule will not save the day if additional evidence in the vehicle is only discovered after the search of the purse. The Court in State v. Banks-Harvey, held that the purse was illegally seized, the inventory search that followed was invalid, and consequently, the evidence from it should have been suppressed.

This article is not considered legal advice. Please consult your police legal advisor regarding any legal issue.

Sherri Bevan Walsh

Summit County Prosecuting Attorney

Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association
10147 Royalton Rd
Cleveland, OH 44133

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