In United States v. Sapalasan,1 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of a motion to suppress drug evidence found during an officer’s inventory search of an individual’s backpack. The court held that police may constitutionally conduct an inventory search of belongings when the property is lawfully retained and the search is done in compliance with police regulations, even after the individual has been released.


At about 2:30 a.m.,2 Anchorage police officers Tae Yoon and Jonathan Behning responded to a call about gunshots at an apartment. As they approached the vicinity of the apartment house, they met Markanthony Sapalasan, carrying a red backpack, and another individual walking away from the apartment house. Officer Behning noticed a pistol sticking out from Sapalasan’s front pocket. Behning drew his weapon, ordered Sapalasan not to move, and searched him for the weapon. He found the pistol loaded, with one round in the chamber and one round missing from the magazine.

Officer Yoon arrested Sapalasan, handcuffed him, and put him in his vehicle. Yoon retrieved Sapalasan’s backpack and requested permission to search it. Sapalasan agreed. Although Yoon found no contraband during his search, he learned that an individual had been found dead in the nearby apartment house with a single gunshot wound. Yoon transported Sapalasan to the police station for further questioning regarding his potential involvement. Before leaving for the police station, Yoon placed Sapalasan’s backpack in the front passenger seat of his squad car.

Sapalasan was interviewed at the police station. Yoon stayed only briefly during the interview before returning to the field to finish his shift, with Sapalasan’s backpack still in his vehicle. After Yoon left, the interview was concluded, and Sapalasan was released.

Before the end of his shift at 9 a.m., Yoon returned to the station and conducted a detailed inventory search of the backpack to log potential evidence. During his inventory search, he found methamphetamines. He stopped the search and obtained a search warrant at around 8:22 a.m.

Sapalasan was charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, both felonies. He moved to suppress the methamphetamine on the ground that his backpack was searched without a proper warrant in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The magistrate judge recommended that his motion be denied, and the district court agreed. Sapalasan was found guilty of both charges. He appealed, arguing the search of his backpack was unlawful.


The Ninth Circuit explained that in Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640 (1983), the Supreme Court held that under the Fourth Amendment, “it is reasonable for police to search the personal effects of a person under lawful arrest as part of the routine administrative procedure at a police station house incident to booking and jailing the suspect.” Id. at 643. In Lafayette, the initial separation of the arrestee and his property occurred only as part of the booking process. The separation of this property created government custody that triggered the policy rationale in justifying an inventory search. Accordingly, the validity of the separation and the inventory search authority depended on whether Lafayette was going to jail. The Ninth Circuit observed that if someone at the station house needs to be placed in the jail facilities, then that individual must be separated from whatever property is on his person.

Here, however, the police did not search Sapalasan’s backpack while he was detained for questioning, nor did they book him into jail. Sapalasan was lawfully separated from his backpack when Officer Yoon arrested him, before Officer Yoon conducted the inventory search. Officer Yoon then retained lawful custody of it in his squad car during the rest of his shift. On appeal, Sapalasan conceded that “separating him from the backpack during transport and interrogation by detectives was lawful.” Thus, the court maintained that the justification of an inventory search did not depend on whether Sapalasan was headed to jail. Sapalasan also conceded that he was arrested on probable cause at the scene. The Ninth Circuit explained that what mattered was that the lawful separation of the defendant from the property created the government’s lawful custody. In such a case, the court explained, the policy rationales behind an inventory search3 are fully implicated, and such a search may be undertaken in accordance with that doctrine’s limitations.

The Ninth Circuit explained that under Lafayette and its progeny, an inventory search’s primary limitation is that it must satisfy reasonable police regulations and be administered in good faith. Lafayette, 462 U.S. at 643. Sapalasan did not contest that Officer Yoon administered the search in good faith, so the Court considered whether Yoon conducted the inventory search in compliance with Anchorage Police Department policy.

The Court of Appeals noted that Officer Yoon conducted the inventory search of the backpack at the end of his shift, rather than right after obtaining custody of the backpack. The court stated that Yoon arguably did not conduct an “immediate” inventory search as required by the Anchorage Police Department policy. However, the court concluded that Yoon’s search sufficiently followed department policy to constitute a lawful inventory search. The court explained that the Anchorage Police Department’s Evidence-Handling and Submission Policy stated that an inventory search be done “under the color of authority.”  The policy added that “all property collected under the color of authority shall be submitted on the date collected, received, seized, or no later than the end of the employee’s assigned shift, or detail, directly to the Evidence Section[.]” Although Officer Yoon did not “immediately make an inventory list” of Sapalasan’s backpack, he still “submitted” the collected property at the end of his shift. The court found that Yoon, therefore, substantially complied with department policy even if there was a minor deviation. United States v. Magdirila, 962 F.3d 1152, 1158 (9th Cir. 2020) (finding that an officer “complied substantially” with police department policy and that “[h]is failure to precisely comply with [it] did not render the [inventory] search invalid”). 

Moreover, because Yoon made “a list or inventory as soon as reasonable,” the court found the later inventory search was constitutional. Lafayette, 462 U.S. at 646.  The court explained that the delay in Yoon’s inventory search was reasonable because he needed to handle other more urgent calls on dispatch during his shift. Accordingly, even though there was a delay in the inventory search, it was not unreasonable for Yoon to maintain custody of the backpack and conduct the inventory search at the end of his shift. This substantially complied with department policy. Because of this compliance, the court concluded that Yoon exercised a lawful inventory search of Sapalasan’s backpack at the station house. 

In sum, because Sapalasan conceded that he was validly separated from his property, government custody of the backpack lawfully emerged. That separate custody allowed the government to conduct an inventory search of the backpack. Because that search was done in good faith and in substantial compliance with police department policy, the search of Sapalasan’s backpack at the police station house was a lawful inventory search, even after Sapalasan had been released. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit concluded that suppression of the evidence was unwarranted and affirmed.


Agencies may observe that in discussing the inventory search doctrine, the Ninth Circuit stated that an inventory search’s primary limitation is that it must satisfy reasonable police regulations and be administered in good faith. The court stated that “[e]nsuring that the police follow standardized procedures helps prevent searches that rest on a concealed investigatory police motive.” See Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 375–76 (1987); Lafayette, 462 U.S. at 642.  We now have clarification that the seizure of the property ultimately searched under the inventory search exception to the warrant requirement does not necessarily need to be contemporaneous. However, officers must comply with departmental policy as to the timing of the search.

As always, if you want to discuss any of this in greater detail, do not hesitate to contact James Touchstone at jrt@jones-mayer.com or by telephone at (714) 446-1400.Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice. The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

12024 U.S. App. LEXIS 7580 (9th Cir. Apr. 1, 2024).

2The opinion does not mention the date of the incident.

3The Supreme Court in Lafayette explained that a standardized inventory search process “not only deters false claims but also inhibits theft or careless handling of articles taken from the arrested person.” 462 U.S. at 646.