Ruling means police can't inspect opaque containers for items

If a Beaverton police officer arrests a criminal suspect who has a fishing tackle box with a bomb or illegal drugs, officers can only examine it if the contraband is somehow visible.

That’s the gist of a recent Oregon Court of Appeals ruling the Beaverton Police Department is expected to adopt as a procedure to comply with state law. City councilors expressed reservations about the prisoner inventory policy changes at the Dec. 11 council meeting.

The ruling effectively changes the department’s common procedure of inspecting all prisoners’ belongings, including items inside closed, opaque containers. Objects such as a tackle box will now be logged as one item, regardless of what else is inside. Without probable cause, the new state law allows officers to examine — but not open — such containers.

“There is a sense of concern about something large being able to go into our inventory when we don’t know what’s in it,” said Councilor Cate Arnold.

Councilor Betty Bode questioned the ordinance’s wording and intent.

“You don’t have to inventory what’s in the tackle box if you open it up and say it’s safe to take this tackle box into the police station,” she said. “If you cannot look into a container, how is that — just from a sensibility perspective — safe?”

Assistant City Attorney David Eder, who presented the changes to the council, agreed the provision creates potential safety problems.

“It does raise some concerns,” he said. “Right now, we have to take it as it is. The case has not been appealed up to the (Supreme Court). At this point, it’s the law of the land.”

Noting Beaverton isn’t alone in what he calls a “statewide problem,” Eder said he’s “not sure what other cities and counties have planned to deal with the problem.”

Responding to a councilor’s question if it would be legal to X-ray a container, Eder likened that practice to using heat-sensing devices to detect high-powered lights used in homegrown marijuana operations.

“If you’re X-raying, you’re looking at an item,” he explained. “You have to have a reason. It will require the police department to get consent to search” as with an automobile, “or some sort of emergency exception.”

Councilor Ian King admitted there’s little, barring an appeal to the Supreme Court or Legislature, the city can do at the moment.

“We’re sort of stuck with this at this point in time,” he said.

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