Argued March 25, 1991, decided May 23, 1991, by a vote of seven to two, Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion for the Court, with Justice Marshall and Stevens dissenting. The Court held that a criminal suspect’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches is not violated when, after he gives police permission to search his car, they open a closed container found within the car that might reasonably hold the object of the search.
Police Officer Trujillo followed Jimeno’s car after overhearing Jimeno arrange what seemed to be a drug transaction. Jimeno was subsequently stopped for a traffic violation. Officer Trujillo declared he had reason to believe that Jimeno was carrying narcotics in the car and asked permission to search it. Jimeno consented, and Trujillo found cocaine inside a folded paper bag on the car’s floorboard. Jimeno argued that his consent to search did not carry the specific consent to open the bag and examine its contents.
Chief Justice Rehnquist opined that the Fourth Amendment was satisfied when, under the circumstances, ‘‘it is objectively reasonable for the police to believe that the scope of the suspect’s consent permitted them to open the particular container.’’ (p. 250– 252). The authorization to search extended beyond the car’s interior surfaces to the bag, since Jimeno did not place any explicit limitation on the scope of the search and was aware that Trujillo would be looking for narcotics in the car. Since a reasonable person may be expected to know that narcotics are generally carried in some form of container, it is reasonable for Trujillo to open the bag. There is no basis for adding to the Fourth Amendment’s basic test of objective reasonableness a requirement that if police wish to search closed containers within a car, they must separately request permission to search each container.
The dissent argued the distinction between open and closed containers and noted that general consent should not be specific consent as well. ‘‘A person who consents to a search of the car from the driver’s seat could also be deemed to consent to a search of his person, or indeed of his body cavities, since a reasonable person may be expected to know that drug couriers frequently store their contraband on their persons or in their body cavities. I suppose (and hope) that even the majority would reject this conclusion, for a person who consents to the search of his car for drugs certainly does not consent to a search of things other than his car for drugs.’’ (p. 256). There are distinct privacy expectations a person has in a car and in closed containers.
AARON R. S. LORENZ
See also Search (General Definition); Seizures; Warrantless Searches; Automobile Searches