Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999)

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After stopping an automobile occupied by three individuals for traffic offenses, a policeman observed a hypodermic syringe in the driver’s shirt pocket. When the driver admitted he used the syringe to take drugs, the officer gained probable cause to believe the car contained illegal drugs, and he searched the passenger compartment. On the rear seat, he found a purse belonging to one of the passengers. Inside the purse he discovered drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine.

When police have probable cause to believe an automobile contains contraband or evidence, they may conduct a warrantless search of that vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment (Carroll v. United States [1925]). Such a search may include containers that might conceal the object of the search (United States v. Ross [1982]). In Wyoming v. Houghton, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the permissible scope of such an automobile search. It held that a search is not limited to items belonging to the driver; rather, police may also search a container they know (or should know) belongs to a passenger, even if they do not suspect the passenger of criminal activity. The Court found no historical evidence admitting a distinction among containers based upon ownership. It also reasoned that passengers possess a reduced expectation of privacy with respect to property they transport in automobiles and that effective law enforcement would be appreciably impaired if police could not search a passenger’s belongings when they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of criminal wrongdoing is hidden in the vehicle.


References and Further Reading

  • Dery, George M., III, Improbable Cause: The Court’s Purposeful Evasion of a Traditional Fourth Amendment Protection in Wyoming v. Houghton, Case Western Reserve Law Review 50 (2000): 3: 547–597.
  • LaFave, Wayne R. Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment, Vol. 3. 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thompson-West, 2004.
  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure. 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thompson- West, 2004

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Automobile Searches; California v. Acevedo, 498 U.S. 807 (1990); Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925); Incorporation Doctrine; Probable Cause