California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991)

The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches generally requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before initiating a search. In Carroll v. United States, the Supreme Court had crafted an exception for moving vehicles, which permitted law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search of an automobile when they had probable cause to believe that contraband was contained somewhere in a vehicle but not when probable cause extended only to a specific container.

Police officers in California observed Charles Acevedo exit the apartment of a man who that morning had picked up a package that they knew contained marijuana. Acevedo placed a brown paper bag, identical in size to one of the marijuana packages, in the trunk of his car and drove off. The officers stopped him, opened the trunk, and discovered marijuana in the bag.

Although the officers only had probable cause to believe that the bag located in the car contained marijuana, rather than the car, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment did not require the officers to obtain a search warrant before opening the bag. It reasoned that if a warrantless search of a vehicle is permissible, then the Fourth Amendment must also allow a less intrusive search for a closed container based on probable cause. The Court stressed that the search of an automobile based on probable cause to believe that a closed container contains contraband is limited to a search for that object and does not extend to the entire car.

REBECCA L. BARNHART

References and Further Reading

  • LaFave, Wayne R. Search and Seizure, 4th ed. 6 vols. St. Paul: West, 2004. 
  • William E. Ringel, et al. Searches & Seizures, Arrests and Confessions, 2nd ed. 3 vols. Deerfield, Ill.: Clark Boardman Callaghan, 1979 [updated three times a year but copyright listed as ‘‘1979’’]. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Automobile Searches; Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925); Probable Cause; Search (General Definition); Search Warrants

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