Automobile Searches

The Fourth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment regulates government actors and provides, in part, the ‘‘right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’’ The Supreme Court, in Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914), described the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures as recognizing the principle that ‘‘a man’s house was his castle.’’ The amendment also provides that ‘‘no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.’’ In general, the Court has determined that a search or seizure is unreasonable unless it is based on probable cause and a warrant, or probable cause and an exception to the warrant requirement.

Searches of automobiles and any containers or occupants therein implicate Fourth Amendment protections. These searches typically occur without warrants, subsequent to a traffic stop. Recognizing the difficulties in getting a warrant for a moving vehicle, the Court has fashioned an exception to the warrant clause for automobiles and containers therein. As long as police have probable cause to believe that an automobile contains an item subject to seizure, they can stop the vehicle and perform a warrantless search of the interior and any containers inside that are capable of holding the suspected item.

The Court first addressed a warrantless search of an automobile in 1925 in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), a Prohibition-era case. In Carroll, federal agents had no warrant but did have probable cause to believe that a car contained illegal liquor. Agents stopped the car, searched its interior, and found illegal alcohol. In finding the search reasonable, the Court recognized first the inherent mobility of an automobile. The Court distinguished between a house, or other permanent structure, and an automobile; because an automobile can quickly be moved out of the jurisdiction, it is not practical for police to obtain a warrant. The Court also reasoned that one has a diminished expectation of privacy in an automobile, unlike in a house. Given these factors, the Court determined that an automobile search based upon probable cause is an exception to the warrant requirement.

In subsequent cases, the Court has developed and expanded the exception. In doing so, the Court has continued to rely on the two rationales of mobility and reduced expectation of privacy, but has found that the exception can apply even to vehicles that are stationary or are also being used as homes. In Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970), pursuant to a lawful traffic stop and arrest, police drove the defendant’s car back to the police station, where it was searched some time later. The Court determined the warrantless search was justified because police could have lawfully searched the car without a warrant at the scene of the arrest. In California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985), police conducted a warrantless search, based upon probable cause, of a parked motor home and discovered marijuana. In finding that the search was reasonable, the Court stressed the mobility of, and the reduced expectation of privacy in, a motor home. Motor homes, like automobiles, are regulated by the government in a manner not applicable to fixed dwellings. In Carney, the Court noted that an objective observer could also conclude that it was being used as a vehicle and not a home.

Probable cause to search an automobile extends to any containers within the vehicle, including those belonging to passengers, that are capable of concealing the suspected item. For example, if police have probable cause to believe a vehicle contains illegal weapons, they may, without a warrant, open only those containers inside the vehicle large enough to hold such weapons.

Probable cause to believe that a container alone, not the vehicle, contains contraband or evidence does not justify a warrantless search of the entire vehicle. In such a situation, police may lawfully stop the automobile, seize the container, and search only it without a warrant. In California v. Acevedo, officers had probable cause to believe that a paper bag in a car’s trunk contained marijuana. Without a warrant, officers stopped the vehicle, opened the trunk and the paper bag, and discovered marijuana inside the bag. The lower court held that police acted properly in seizing the bag. However, because the officers did not have probable cause to believe that the defendant’s car otherwise contained contraband, the court found that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by opening the bag without a warrant. The Supreme Court reversed and found that, while a warrantless search of the entire vehicle would have been unreasonable because there was no probable cause, the warrantless search of the bag was justified because the officers had probable cause to believe that it contained marijuana. Interpreting Carroll as governing all warrantless automobile cases, the Court explained that ‘‘police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.’’

Subsequent to a lawful impoundment of a vehicle, police may also perform a warrantless search in the course of inventorying its contents. Such an inventory search, however, must be conducted in accordance with standard procedures established by the jurisdiction’s law enforcement agency.

While Carroll set forth the rule for warrantless automobile searches, other case law controls Fourth Amendment issues surrounding warrantless searches and seizures of occupants of an automobile. If an officer lawfully stops an automobile, he or she can ask all occupants to step out of the car as a result of the lawful stop, even without any indication that the occupants are engaging in illegal activities. If the officer has probable cause to arrest an occupant of the vehicle and take that person into custody, incident to that custodial arrest, he or she can search not only the arrestee but also the passenger compartment, including any closed or open containers, without a warrant. While the arrest alone does not provide the authority for a warrantless search of the trunk, what is discovered during the search of the passenger compartment might provide the necessary justification for such a search.

MARGARET M. LAWTON

References and Further Reading

  • Allen, Ronald Jay, Joseph L. Hoffmann, Debra A. Livingston, and William J. Stuntz. Comprehensive Criminal Procedure, 2nd ed. New York: Aspen Publishers, 2005, 333–336; 489–493. 
  • American Jurisprudence, 2nd ed., vol. 68 (Searches and Seizures). St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2000, sec. 268 (Vehicular Searches). 
  • Investigation and Police Practices: Warrantless Searches and Seizures: Vehicle Searches, Container Searches, and Inventory Searches, The Georgetown Law Journal 34th Annual Review of Criminal Procedure, 91–101 (2005). 
  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure: Criminal Practice Series, vol. 2. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 1999, Chapter 3, sec. 2(e) and 7 (a – f). 
  • Loewy, Arnold H., Cops, Cars, and Citizens: Fixing the Broken Balance, Saint John’s Law Review 76 (2002): 535–581. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985) 
  • Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925) 
  • Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970) 
  • Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990) 
  • Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113 (1998) 
  • Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997) 
  • New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) 
  • Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004) 
  • United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977) 
  • Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914) 

See also Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971); Exclusionary Rule; Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248 (1991); Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); Plain View; Probable Cause; Search (General Definition); Seizures; South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976); United States v. Brignoni–Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975); United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973); Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999)

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