The Supreme Court has held that, under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, police officers must obtain a warrant to engage in a search or a seizure, unless their activity falls within one of ‘‘a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions.’’ One of the most important of these exceptions is the ‘‘car search doctrine,’’ often called the ‘‘Carroll Doctrine,’’ as it was first enunciated in this case.
Carroll was a bootlegging case from Prohibition times. Police officers knew that the ‘‘Carroll boys’’ were bootleggers. They had previously offered to supply undercover agents in Grand Rapids with whiskey. So when officers saw their car by chance, outside Grand Rapids, coming from the direction of Detroit, it was stopped, searched, and sixty-eight bottles of whiskey were found stashed behind the back seat.
Chief Justice Taft, for the majority, was untroubled by the fact that the officers did not have a warrant. Automobiles, unlike ‘‘a store, dwelling house, or other structure,’’ are readily mobile, and ‘‘it is not practicable to secure a warrant, because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.’’
That did not mean that officers could lawfully stop every car on the road on the chance that they might find contraband. To undertake a warrantless search and seizure of a car, officers had to possess probable cause.
While the Carroll Doctrine still applies, permitting a warrantless search and seizure of a vehicle where officers have probable cause to believe that evidence of crime is present, the Court has subsequently held that it is not justified only by the fact of ready mobility. Instead, the car search exception to the warrant requirement survives today because people have a reduced expectation of privacy in their vehicles due to ‘‘pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls, including periodic inspection and licensing requirements.’’
JOHN M. BURKOFF
See also Automobile Search; California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991); Probable Cause; Search (General Definition); Warrantless Searches