South Dakota v. Opperman

428 U.S. 364 (1976)

Decided: July 6, 1976

U.S. Supreme Court

In the early morning hours of Tuesday December 10, 1973 Vermillion, South Dakota Police Officer William Herrick issued a vehicle a parking ticket in violation of a city code that prohibited parking between 2a – 6a in downtown Vermillion on a blue Chevrolet located at 10 West Main Street, Vermillion, South Dakota. At 10a, a meter maid issued a second citation for a parking meter violation and notified Officer Robert ‘Bob’ Frank who requested a tow truck.

Mr. Donald Opperman’s blue Chevrolet was parked unlawfully here at 10 West Main Street, Vermillion, South Dakota.  At the time it was parked in front of the Dallas Jewelry store.  On December 10, 1973 the actions of Officer Robert Frank led to a gift for every law enforcement officer in the United States.

At Officer Frank’s direction the tow truck operator, Mr. Terry Hughes unlocked the car with a tool.  A watch which was seen on the dashboard was secured by the officer and then he opened the glove box to find a baggie of marijuana, which was less than one ounce.  Mr. Donald R. Opperman, the registered owner, was charged with possession of marijuana, tried and convicted.

The Supreme Court of South Dakota overturned the conviction finding the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  The City of Vermillion appealed, and the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 29, 1976.  On Tuesday July 6, 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court held “[W]e conclude that in following standard police procedures [vehicle inventory by the]… police was not “unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Officer Frank of the Vermillion South Dakota Police Department followed his department policy to inventory the car prior to impound. This was recognized by the Supreme Court of South Dakota in State v. Opperman, 228 N.W.2d 152 (April 15, 1975) “Prior to this seizure Frank had no probable cause to believe that the automobile contained contraband, nor was appellant under arrest.  His car was towed for violating a mere parking ordinance and was searched pursuant to a Vermillion Police Department procedure.” [emphasis added]. Officer Frank followed his department policy to inventory a car prior to impoundment … and you should also follow your department policy on inventorying a car prior to impoundment.
  1. Every law enforcement officer in the nation owes a debt of gratitude to the Vermillion Police Department policy writer who crafted the impound policy, Officer Frank for following the policy and the six U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of permitting inventory of vehicles prior to impoundment. Innumerable suspects have been convicted of crimes ranging from minor misdemeanors to felonies throughout this nation because Mr. Opperman left less than one ounce of marijuana in his car!  Today, charging the owner of a vehicle with marijuana in the glove box when the owner or driver was not present will not result in a conviction without more to prove that the owner or driver knew the marijuana or other contraband was inside the vehicle.  This case occurred in 1973 and courts today would not convict a possession case with the same fact pattern.
  1. After reviewing this article, take some time and review your department policy on impounding motor vehicles. By following your policy, you prevent the citizen from having valuables removed from the car while it is at the impound lot, making false claims of theft against you or your agency and potentially discovering the fruits of criminal activity.  Each time you impound a car and complete an inventory think of it as your Opperman Opportunity.

Information for this article was obtained from South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976), State v. Opperman, 228 N.W.2d 152 (April 15, 1975) and the case file provided by Vermillion Police Chief Matthew Betzen.

Does your agency train on the Vehicle Impounds and department policy?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.