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2.8: Chapter 9 - Warrant Exceptions

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    Warrant Exceptions

    The Court has stated repeatedly over the decades that searches and seizures conducted without warrants are presumptively unlawful. The Court has also, however, created several exceptions to the warrant requirement. We will spend the next several chapters exploring these exceptions.

    For every warrant exception, students should consider: (1) when the exception applies and (2) what the exception allows police to do. In particular, students should note whether probable cause is necessary for the exception to apply and, if not, what other quantum of evidence is required.

    In this chapter, we consider the “plain view exception” and the “automobile exception,” each of which has grown over time. In our first case, the Court considered both exceptions.

    The Plain View Exception

    The “plain view” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement permits a law enforcement officer to seize what clearly is incriminating evidence or contraband when it is discovered in a place where the officer has a right to be.1

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Edward H. Coolidge, Jr. v. New Hampshire

    Decided June 21, 1971 – 403 U.S. 443

    Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.2

    We are called upon in this case to decide issues under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments arising in the context of a state criminal trial for the commission of a particularly brutal murder. As in every case, our single duty is to determine the issues presented in accord with the Constitution and the law.

    Pamela Mason, a 14-year-old girl, left her home in Manchester, New Hampshire, on the evening of January 13, 1964, during a heavy snowstorm, apparently in response to a man’s telephone call for a babysitter. Eight days later, after a thaw, her body was found by the site of a major north-south highway several miles away. She had been murdered. The event created great alarm in the area, and the police immediately began a massive investigation.

    On January 28, having learned from a neighbor that the petitioner, Edward Coolidge, had been away from home on the evening of the girl’s disappearance, the police went to his house to question him. They asked him, among other things, if he owned any guns, and he produced three, two shotguns and a rifle. They also asked whether he would take a lie-detector test concerning his account of his activities on the night of the disappearance. He agreed to do so on the following Sunday, his day off. The police later described his attitude on the occasion of this visit as fully “cooperative.” His wife was in the house throughout the interview.

    On the following Sunday, a policeman called Coolidge early in the morning and asked him to come down to the police station for the trip to Concord, New Hampshire, where the lie-detector test was to be administered. That evening, two plainclothes policemen arrived at the Coolidge house, where Mrs. Coolidge was waiting with her mother-in-law for her husband’s return. These two policemen were not the two who had visited the house earlier in the week, and they apparently did not know that Coolidge had displayed three guns for inspection during the earlier visit. The plainclothesmen told Mrs. Coolidge that her husband was in “serious trouble” and probably would not be home that night. They asked Coolidge’s mother to leave, and proceeded to question Mrs. Coolidge. During the course of the interview they obtained from her four guns belonging to Coolidge, and some clothes that Mrs. Coolidge thought her husband might have been wearing on the evening of Pamela Mason’s disappearance.

    Coolidge was held in jail on an unrelated charge that night, but he was released the next day. During the ensuing two and a half weeks, the State accumulated a quantity of evidence to support the theory that it was he who had killed Pamela Mason. On February 19, the results of the investigation were presented at a meeting between the police officers working on the case and the State Attorney General, who had personally taken charge of all police activities relating to the murder, and was later to serve as chief prosecutor at the trial. At this meeting, it was decided that there was enough evidence to justify the arrest of Coolidge on the murder charge and a search of his house and two cars. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Manchester police chief made formal application, under oath, for the arrest and search warrants. The complaint supporting the warrant for a search of Coolidge’s Pontiac automobile, the only warrant that concerns us here, stated that the affiant “has probable cause to suspect and believe, and does suspect and believe, and herewith offers satisfactory evidence, that there are certain objects and things used in the Commission of said offense, now kept, and concealed in or upon a certain vehicle, to wit: 1951 Pontiac two-door sedan ….” The warrants were then signed and issued by the Attorney General himself, acting as a justice of the peace. Under New Hampshire law in force at that time, all justices of the peace were authorized to issue search warrants.

    The police arrested Coolidge in his house on the day the warrant issued. Mrs. Coolidge asked whether she might remain in the house with her small child, but was told that she must stay elsewhere, apparently in part because the police believed that she would be harassed by reporters if she were accessible to them. When she asked whether she might take her car, she was told that both cars had been “impounded,” and that the police would provide transportation for her. Some time later, the police called a towing company, and about two and a half hours after Coolidge had been taken into custody the cars were towed to the police station. It appears that at the time of the arrest the cars were parked in the Coolidge driveway, and that although dark had fallen they were plainly visible both from the street and from inside the house where Coolidge was actually arrested. The 1951 Pontiac was searched and vacuumed on February 21, two days after it was seized, again a year later, in January 1965, and a third time in April 1965.

    At Coolidge’s subsequent jury trial on the charge of murder, vacuum sweepings, including particles of gun powder, taken from the Pontiac were introduced in evidence against him, as part of an attempt by the State to show by microscopic analysis that it was highly probable that Pamela Mason had been in Coolidge’s car. Also introduced in evidence was one of the guns taken by the police on their Sunday evening visit to the Coolidge house—a 22-caliber Mossberg rifle, which the prosecution claimed was the murder weapon. Conflicting ballistics testimony was offered on the question whether the bullets found in Pamela Mason’s body had been fired from this rifle. Finally, the prosecution introduced vacuum sweepings of the clothes taken from the Coolidge house that same Sunday evening, and attempted to show through microscopic analysis that there was a high probability that the clothes had been in contact with Pamela Mason’s body. Pretrial motions to suppress all this evidence were referred by the trial judge to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which ruled the evidence admissible. The jury found Coolidge guilty and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of conviction, and we granted certiorari to consider the constitutional questions raised by the admission of this evidence against Coolidge at his trial.


    The petitioner’s first claim is that the warrant authorizing the seizure and subsequent search of his 1951 Pontiac automobile was invalid because not issued by a “neutral and detached magistrate.” Since we agree with the petitioner that the warrant was invalid for this reason, we need not consider his further argument that the allegations under oath supporting the issuance of the warrant were so conclusory as to violate relevant constitutional standards.

    The classic statement of the policy underlying the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment is that of Mr. Justice Jackson, writing for the Court:

    “The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime. Any assumption that evidence sufficient to support a magistrate’s disinterested determination to issue a search warrant will justify the officers in making a search without a warrant would reduce the Amendment to a nullity and leave the people’s homes secure only in the discretion of police officers…. When the right of privacy must reasonably yield to the right of search is, as a rule, to be decided by a judicial officer, not by a policeman or Government enforcement agent.”

    We find no escape from the conclusion that the seizure and search of the Pontiac automobile cannot constitutionally rest upon the warrant issued by the state official who was the chief investigator and prosecutor in this case. Since he was not the neutral and detached magistrate required by the Constitution, the search stands on no firmer ground than if there had been no warrant at all. If the seizure and search are to be justified, they must, therefore, be justified on some other theory.


    [T]he most basic constitutional rule in this area is that “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions.” The exceptions are “jealously and carefully drawn,” and there must be “a showing by those who seek exemption … that the exigencies of the situation made that course imperative.” “[T]he burden is on those seeking the exemption to show the need for it.” In times of unrest, whether caused by crime or racial conflict or fear of internal subversion, this basic law and the values that it represents may appear unrealistic or “extravagant” to some. But the values were those of the authors of our fundamental constitutional concepts. In times not altogether unlike our own they won—by legal and constitutional means in England, and by revolution on this continent—a right of personal security against arbitrary intrusions by official power. If times have changed, reducing everyman’s scope to do as he pleases in an urban and industrial world, the changes have made the values served by the Fourth Amendment more, not less, important.


    [The majority rejected the state’s claim that the automobile exception justified the search. Because the Court’s analysis of the automobile exception is both confusing and at odds with current law, it is not included here at length. Certain language, however, is well known and illustrates the Court’s early thinking on the exception. For example, citing precedent, the Court stated:

    “‘[E]xigent circumstances’ justify the warrantless search of ‘an automobile stopped on the highway,’ where there is probable cause, because the car is ‘movable, the occupants are alerted, and the car’s contents may never be found again if a warrant must be obtained.’ ‘[T]he opportunity to search is fleeting ….”

    Failing to find the necessary circumstances in this case, the Court wrote, “The word ‘automobile’ is not a talisman in whose presence the Fourth Amendment fades away and disappears.”

    Although the Court separated the concept of “exigent circumstances” from the automobile exception in subsequent cases, it continues to justify the automobile exception’s existence with references to the easy mobility of vehicles.

    The dissent of Justice Black, which disputed the Court’s automobile exception analysis, has been omitted.]


    The State’s [] theory in support of the warrantless seizure and search of the Pontiac car is that the car itself was an “instrumentality of the crime,” and as such might be seized by the police on Coolidge’s property because it was in plain view. [F]or the reasons that follow, we hold that the “plain view” exception to the warrant requirement is inapplicable to this case.

    It is well established that under certain circumstances the police may seize evidence in plain view without a warrant. But it is important to keep in mind that, in the vast majority of cases, any evidence seized by the police will be in plain view, at least at the moment of seizure. The problem with the ‘plain view’ doctrine has been to identify the circumstances in which plain view has legal significance rather than being simply the normal concomitant of any search, legal or illegal.

    An example of the applicability of the “plain view” doctrine is the situation in which the police have a warrant to search a given area for specified objects, and in the course of the search come across some other article of incriminating character. Where the initial intrusion that brings the police within plain view of such an article is supported, not by a warrant, but by one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, the seizure is also legitimate. Thus the police may inadvertently come across evidence while in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect. And an object that comes into view during a search incident to arrest that is appropriately limited in scope under existing law may be seized without a warrant. Finally, the “plain view” doctrine has been applied where a police officer is not searching for evidence against the accused, but nonetheless inadvertently comes across an incriminating object.

    What the “plain view” cases have in common is that the police officer in each of them had a prior justification for an intrusion in the course of which he came inadvertently across a piece of evidence incriminating the accused. The doctrine serves to supplement the prior justification—whether it be a warrant for another object, hot pursuit, search incident to lawful arrest, or some other legitimate reason for being present unconnected with a search directed against the accused—and permits the warrantless seizure. Of course, the extension of the original justification is legitimate only where it is immediately apparent to the police that they have evidence before them; the “plan view” doctrine may not be used to extend a general exploratory search from one object to another until something incriminating at last emerges.

    The rationale for the “plain view” exception is evident if we keep in mind the two distinct constitutional protections served by the warrant requirement. First, the magistrate’s scrutiny is intended to eliminate altogether searches not based on probable cause. The premise here is that any intrusion in the way of search or seizure is an evil, so that no intrusion at all is justified without a careful prior determination of necessity. The second, distinct objective is that those searches deemed necessary should be as limited as possible. Here, the specific evil is the “general warrant” abhorred by the colonists, and the problem is not that of intrusion per se, but of a general, exploratory rummaging in a person’s belongings. The warrant accomplishes this second objective by requiring a “particular description” of the things to be seized.

    The “plain view” doctrine is not in conflict with the first objective because plain view does not occur until a search is in progress. In each case, this initial intrusion is justified by a warrant or by an exception such as “hot pursuit” or search incident to a lawful arrest, or by an extraneous valid reason for the officer’s presence. And, given the initial intrusion, the seizure of an object in plain view is consistent with the second objective, since it does not convert the search into a general or exploratory one. As against the minor peril to Fourth Amendment protections, there is a major gain in effective law enforcement. Where, once an otherwise lawful search is in progress, the police inadvertently come upon a piece of evidence, it would often be a needless inconvenience, and sometimes dangerous—to the evidence or to the police themselves—to require them to ignore it until they have obtained a warrant particularly describing it.

    The limits on the doctrine are implicit in the statement of its rationale. The first of these is that plain view alone is never enough to justify the warrantless seizure of evidence. This is simply a corollary of the familiar principle discussed above, that no amount of probable cause can justify a warrantless search or seizure absent “exigent circumstances.” Incontrovertible testimony of the senses that an incriminating object is on premises belonging to a criminal suspect may establish the fullest possible measure of probable cause. But even where the object is contraband, this Court has repeatedly stated and enforced the basic rule that the police may not enter and make a warrantless seizure.

    The second limitation is that the discovery of evidence in plain view must be inadvertent. The rationale of the exception to the warrant requirement, as just stated, is that a plain-view seizure will not turn an initially valid (and therefore limited) search into a “general” one, while the inconvenience of procuring a warrant to cover an inadvertent discovery is great. But where the discovery is anticipated, where the police know in advance the location of the evidence and intend to seize it, the situation is altogether different. The requirement of a warrant to seize imposes no inconvenience whatever, or at least none which is constitutionally cognizable in a legal system that regards warrantless searches as “per se unreasonable” in the absence of “exigent circumstances.”

    If the initial intrusion is bottomed upon a warrant that fails to mention a particular object, though the police know its location and intend to seize it, then there is a violation of the express constitutional requirement of “Warrants … particularly describing … [the] things to be seized.” The initial intrusion may, of course, be legitimated not by a warrant but by one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as hot pursuit or search incident to lawful arrest. But to extend the scope of such an intrusion to the seizure of objects—not contraband nor stolen nor dangerous in themselves—which the police know in advance they will find in plain view and intend to seize, would fly in the face of the basic rule that no amount of probable cause can justify a warrantless seizure.

    In the light of what has been said, it is apparent that the “plain view” exception cannot justify the police seizure of the Pontiac car in this case. The police had ample opportunity to obtain a valid warrant; they knew the automobile’s exact description and location well in advance; they intended to seize it when they came upon Coolidge’s property. And this is not a case involving contraband or stolen goods or objects dangerous in themselves.

    The seizure was therefore unconstitutional, and so was the subsequent search at the station house. Since evidence obtained in the course of the search was admitted at Coolidge’s trial, the judgment must be reversed and the case remanded to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    In Coolidge, the Court stated that the “plain view exception” existed but did not justify the search at issue in the case. In Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987), the Court explained the plain view exception further. As the Hicks Court sets forth, the plain view exception can apply only if an officer conducts a seizure (1) while the officer is somewhere the officer has the lawful right to be (e.g., while on a public sidewalk, or inside a house executing a warrant) and (2) the officer has probable cause to believe that the object is subject to seizure. Objects are subject to seizure if they are contraband or are otherwise evidence of, fruits of, or instrumentalities of a crime. (“Contraband” refers to items that are unlawful to possess, such as illegal drugs.) In Hicks, an officer was lawfully inside a house and spotted an object the officer believed to be stolen. But because the officer lacked probable cause to support his belief upon picking up the item, the officer’s seizure of the object (a stolen stereo) was deemed outside the scope of the exception—that is, it was unlawful.

    In Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990), the Court expanded the scope of the plain view exception by removing the “inadvertence requirement” set forth in Justice Stewart’s plurality opinion in Coolidge. Although the Horton Court described Coolidge as “binding precedent,” it held that the inadvertence requirement was not “essential” to the Court’s result in Coolidge. As the Horton majority put it, for the exception to apply, “not only must the officer be lawfully located in a place from which the object can be plainly seen, but he or she must also have a lawful right of access to the object itself.” In addition, “not only must the item be in plain view; its incriminating character must also be ‘immediately apparent.’”

    After restating Justice Stewart’s arguments in support of the inadvertence requirement, the Horton Court rejected it as follows:

    “We find two flaws in this reasoning. First, even-handed law enforcement is best achieved by the application of objective standards of conduct, rather than standards that depend upon the subjective state of mind of the officer. The fact that an officer is interested in an item of evidence and fully expects to find it in the course of a search should not invalidate its seizure if the search is confined in area and duration by the terms of a warrant or a valid exception to the warrant requirement. If the officer has knowledge approaching certainty that the item will be found, we see no reason why he or she would deliberately omit a particular description of the item to be seized from the application for a search warrant. Specification of the additional item could only permit the officer to expand the scope of the search. On the other hand, if he or she has a valid warrant to search for one item and merely a suspicion concerning the second, whether or not it amounts to probable cause, we fail to see why that suspicion should immunize the second item from seizure if it is found during a lawful search for the first.”

    “Second, the suggestion that the inadvertence requirement is necessary to prevent the police from conducting general searches, or from converting specific warrants into general warrants, is not persuasive, because that interest is already served by the requirements that no warrant issue unless it ‘particularly describ[es] the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized,’” and that a warrantless search be circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation.”

    Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, noted in dissent that “Forty-six States and the District of Columbia and 12 United States Courts of Appeals” had adopted the inadvertence requirement and that there had “been no outcry from law enforcement officials that the inadvertent discovery requirement unduly burdens their efforts.” It is possible, however, that many of the courts cited by the dissent felt bound by Coolidge, regardless of their opinions on the wisdom of the inadvertence requirement.

    In the next case, the Court explored the concept of a “plain feel” exception, which was analogized to the plain view exception.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Minnesota v. Timothy Dickerson

    Decided June 7, 1993 – 508 U.S. 366

    Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

    In this case, we consider whether the Fourth Amendment permits the seizure of contraband detected through a police officer’s sense of touch during a protective patdown search.


    On the evening of November 9, 1989, two Minneapolis police officers were patrolling an area on the city’s north side in a marked squad car. At about 8:15 p.m., one of the officers observed respondent leaving a 12-unit apartment building on Morgan Avenue North. The officer, having previously responded to complaints of drug sales in the building’s hallways and having executed several search warrants on the premises, considered the building to be a notorious “crack house.” According to testimony credited by the trial court, respondent began walking toward the police but, upon spotting the squad car and making eye contact with one of the officers, abruptly halted and began walking in the opposite direction. His suspicion aroused, this officer watched as respondent turned and entered an alley on the other side of the apartment building. Based upon respondent’s seemingly evasive actions and the fact that he had just left a building known for cocaine traffic, the officers decided to stop respondent and investigate further.

    The officers pulled their squad car into the alley and ordered respondent to stop and submit to a patdown search. The search revealed no weapons, but the officer conducting the search did take an interest in a small lump in respondent’s nylon jacket. The officer later testified:

    “[A]s I pat-searched the front of his body, I felt a lump, a small lump, in the front pocket. I examined it with my fingers and it slid and it felt to be a lump of crack cocaine in cellophane.” The officer then reached into respondent’s pocket and retrieved a small plastic bag containing one fifth of one gram of crack cocaine. Respondent was arrested and charged in Hennepin County District Court with possession of a controlled substance.

    Before trial, respondent moved to suppress the cocaine. The trial court first concluded that the officers were justified under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), in stopping respondent to investigate whether he might be engaged in criminal activity. The court further found that the officers were justified in frisking respondent to ensure that he was not carrying a weapon. Finally, analogizing to the “plain-view” doctrine, under which officers may make a warrantless seizure of contraband found in plain view during a lawful search for other items, the trial court ruled that the officers’ seizure of the cocaine did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

    His suppression motion having failed, respondent proceeded to trial and was found guilty.

    On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed. The court agreed with the trial court that the investigative stop and protective patdown search of respondent were lawful under Terry because the officers had a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that respondent was engaged in criminal behavior and that he might be armed and dangerous. The court concluded, however, that the officers had overstepped the bounds allowed by Terry in seizing the cocaine. In doing so, the Court of Appeals “decline[d] to adopt the plain feel exception” to the warrant requirement.

    The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed. Like the Court of Appeals, the State Supreme Court held that both the stop and the frisk of respondent were valid under Terry, but found the seizure of the cocaine to be unconstitutional. The court expressly refused “to extend the plain view doctrine to the sense of touch” on the grounds that “the sense of touch is inherently less immediate and less reliable than the sense of sight” and that “the sense of touch is far more intrusive into the personal privacy that is at the core of the [F]ourth [A]mendment.”

    We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the state and federal courts over whether contraband detected through the sense of touch during a patdown search may be admitted into evidence. We now affirm.


    The question presented today is whether police officers may seize nonthreatening contraband detected during a protective patdown search of the sort permitted by Terry. We think the answer is clearly that they may, so long as the officers’ search stays within the bounds marked by Terry.


    We have already held that police officers, at least under certain circumstances, may seize contraband detected during the lawful execution of a Terry search. The Court [has] held: “If, while conducting a legitimate Terry search of the interior of the automobile, the officer should, as here, discover contraband other than weapons, he clearly cannot be required to ignore the contraband, and the Fourth Amendment does not require its suppression in such circumstances.”

    The Court justified this latter holding by reference to our cases under the “plain-view” doctrine. Under that doctrine, if police are lawfully in a position from which they view an object, if its incriminating character is immediately apparent, and if the officers have a lawful right of access to the object, they may seize it without a warrant. If, however, the police lack probable cause to believe that an object in plain view is contraband without conducting some further search of the object—i.e., if “its incriminating character [is not] ‘immediately apparent,’”—the plain-view doctrine cannot justify its seizure.

    We think that this doctrine has an obvious application by analogy to cases in which an officer discovers contraband through the sense of touch during an otherwise lawful search. The rationale of the plain-view doctrine is that if contraband is left in open view and is observed by a police officer from a lawful vantage point, there has been no invasion of a legitimate expectation of privacy and thus no “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment—or at least no search independent of the initial intrusion that gave the officers their vantage point. The warrantless seizure of contraband that presents itself in this manner is deemed justified by the realization that resort to a neutral magistrate under such circumstances would often be impracticable and would do little to promote the objectives of the Fourth Amendment. The same can be said of tactile discoveries of contraband. If a police officer lawfully pats down a suspect’s outer clothing and feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity immediately apparent, there has been no invasion of the suspect’s privacy beyond that already authorized by the officer’s search for weapons; if the object is contraband, its warrantless seizure would be justified by the same practical considerations that inhere in the plain-view context.


    It remains to apply these principles to the facts of this case. Respondent has not challenged the finding made by the trial court and affirmed by both the Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court that the police were justified under Terry in stopping him and frisking him for weapons. Thus, the dispositive question before this Court is whether the officer who conducted the search was acting within the lawful bounds marked by Terry at the time he gained probable cause to believe that the lump in respondent’s jacket was contraband. The State District Court did not make precise findings on this point, instead finding simply that the officer, after feeling “a small, hard object wrapped in plastic” in respondent’s pocket, “formed the opinion that the object … was crack … cocaine.” The District Court also noted that the officer made “no claim that he suspected this object to be a weapon,” a finding affirmed on appeal. The Minnesota Supreme Court, after “a close examination of the record,” held that the officer’s own testimony “belies any notion that he ‘immediately’” recognized the lump as crack cocaine. Rather, the court concluded, the officer determined that the lump was contraband only after “squeezing, sliding and otherwise manipulating the contents of the defendant’s pocket”—a pocket which the officer already knew contained no weapon.

    Under the State Supreme Court’s interpretation of the record before it, it is clear that the court was correct in holding that the police officer in this case overstepped the bounds of the “strictly circumscribed” search for weapons allowed under Terry. Where, as here, “an officer who is executing a valid search for one item seizes a different item,” this Court rightly “has been sensitive to the danger … that officers will enlarge a specific authorization, furnished by a warrant or an exigency, into the equivalent of a general warrant to rummage and seize at will.” Here, the officer’s continued exploration of respondent’s pocket after having concluded that it contained no weapon was unrelated to “[t]he sole justification of the search [under Terry:] … the protection of the police officer and others nearby.” It therefore amounted to the sort of evidentiary search that Terry expressly refused to authorize and that we have condemned in subsequent cases.

    For these reasons, the judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court is [a]ffirmed.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Students often ask for examples of what would satisfy the “plain feel” standard that the Court found was not met in Dickerson. The simplest examples likely involve guns and other weapons that have fairly obvious shapes, such as a club.

    When one of your authors taught bar review, he employed a different example, desiring to use something memorable not involving a weapon. Imagine that the Museum of Natural History has reported stolen a rare starfish from its Asteroidea collection. A few hours later, a police officer notices a person walking in an unusual way near the museum and—based on reasonable suspicion—lawfully stops and frisks the suspect. Upon patting down the suspect’s jacket, the officer feels sharp pains in her hand. When she looks at her hand, she notices five rows of indentations on her palm, each radiating from a central point. It seems likely that the officer could reach into the suspect’s jacket to seize (what she expects to be) the stolen starfish.

    The Automobile Exception

    In the early 2000s, hip hop mogul Jay-Z released “99 Problems,” a song that concerned—among other things—the law governing when police may search the vehicles of criminal suspects. The song recounts a conversation between the rapper and a police officer who pulled him over in 1994.

    Officer: Do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?
    Jay-Z: Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back, and I know my rights so you go’n need a warrant for that
    Officer: Aren’t you sharp as a tack, some type of lawyer or something or somebody important or something?”
    Jay-Z: Nah I ain’t pass the bar but I know a little bit …3

    Professor Caleb Mason published an essay in 2012 that examines “99 Problems” in great detail, focusing particularly on its relevance to criminal procedure.4

    If this Essay serves no other purpose, I hope it serves to debunk, for any readers who persist in believing it, the myth that locking your trunk will keep the cops from searching it. Based on the number of my students who arrived at law school believing that if you lock your trunk and glove compartment, the police will need a warrant to search them, I surmise that it’s even more widespread among the lay public. But it’s completely, 100% wrong.

    There is no warrant requirement for car searches. The Supreme Court has declared unequivocally that because cars are inherently mobile (and are pervasively regulated, and operated in public spaces), it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the police to search the car—the whole car, and everything in the car, including containers—whenever they have probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of crime. You don’t have to arrest the person, or impound the vehicle. You just need probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of crime. So, in any vehicle stop, the officers may search the entire car, without consent, if they develop probable cause to believe that car contains, say, drugs.

    All the action, in short, is about probable cause. Warrants never come into the picture. The fact that the trunk and glove compartments are locked is completely irrelevant. Now, Jay-Z may have just altered the lyrics for dramatic effect, but that would be unfortunate insofar as the song is going to reach many more people than any criminal procedure lecture, and everyone should really know the outline of the law in this area. What the line should say is: “You’ll need some p.c. for that.”

    In the next case, the Court sets forth what counts as an “automobile” for purposes of the automobile exception.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    California v. Charles R. Carney

    Decided May 13, 1985 – 471 U.S. 386

    Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

    We granted certiorari to decide whether law enforcement agents violated the Fourth Amendment when they conducted a warrantless search, based on probable cause, of a fully mobile “motor home” located in a public place.


    On May 31, 1979, Drug Enforcement Agency Agent Robert Williams watched respondent, Charles Carney, approach a youth in downtown San Diego. The youth accompanied Carney to a Dodge Mini Motor Home parked in a nearby lot. Carney and the youth closed the window shades in the motor home, including one across the front window. Agent Williams had previously received uncorroborated information that the same motor home was used by another person who was exchanging marihuana for sex. Williams, with assistance from other agents, kept the motor home under surveillance for the entire one and one-quarter hours that Carney and the youth remained inside. When the youth left the motor home, the agents followed and stopped him. The youth told the agents that he had received marijuana in return for allowing Carney sexual contacts.

    At the agents’ request, the youth returned to the motor home and knocked on its door; Carney stepped out. The agents identified themselves as law enforcement officers. Without a warrant or consent, one agent entered the motor home and observed marihuana, plastic bags, and a scale of the kind used in weighing drugs on a table. Agent Williams took Carney into custody and took possession of the motor home. A subsequent search of the motor home at the police station revealed additional marihuana in the cupboards and refrigerator.

    Respondent was charged with possession of marihuana for sale. At a preliminary hearing, he moved to suppress the evidence discovered in the motor home. The Magistrate denied the motion, upholding the initial search as a justifiable search for other persons, and the subsequent search as a routine inventory search.

    Respondent renewed his suppression motion in the Superior Court. The Superior Court also rejected the claim, holding that there was probable cause to arrest respondent, that the search of the motor home was authorized under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, and that the motor home itself could be seized without a warrant as an instrumentality of the crime. Respondent then pleaded nolo contendere to the charges against him, and was placed on probation for three years.

    Respondent appealed from the order placing him on probation. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, reasoning that the vehicle exception applied to respondent’s motor home.

    The California Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The Supreme Court did not disagree with the conclusion of the trial court that the agents had probable cause to arrest respondent and to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of a crime; however, the court held that the search was unreasonable because no warrant was obtained, rejecting the State’s argument that the vehicle exception to the warrant requirement should apply. That court reached its decision by concluding that the mobility of a vehicle “is no longer the prime justification for the automobile exception; rather, ‘the answer lies in the diminished expectation of privacy which surrounds the automobile.’” The California Supreme Court held that the expectations of privacy in a motor home are more like those in a dwelling than in an automobile because the primary function of motor homes is not to provide transportation but to “provide the occupant with living quarters.”

    We granted certiorari. We reverse.


    [The automobile] exception to the [Fourth Amendment] warrant requirement was first set forth by the Court 60 years ago in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). There, the Court recognized that the privacy interests in an automobile are constitutionally protected; however, it held that the ready mobility of the automobile justifies a lesser degree of protection of those interests. The Court rested this exception on a long-recognized distinction between stationary structures and vehicles.

    The capacity to be “quickly moved” was clearly the basis of the holding in Carroll, and our cases have consistently recognized ready mobility as one of the principal bases of the automobile exception…. The mobility of automobiles, we have observed, “creates circumstances of such exigency that, as a practical necessity, rigorous enforcement of the warrant requirement is impossible.”

    However, although ready mobility alone was perhaps the original justification for the vehicle exception, our later cases have made clear that ready mobility is not the only basis for the exception. The reasons for the vehicle exception, we have said, are twofold. “Besides the element of mobility, less rigorous warrant requirements govern because the expectation of privacy with respect to one’s automobile is significantly less than that relating to one’s home or office.”

    Even in cases where an automobile was not immediately mobile, the lesser expectation of privacy resulting from its use as a readily mobile vehicle justified application of the vehicular exception. In some cases, the configuration of the vehicle contributed to the lower expectations of privacy; for example, we held in Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583 (1974), that because the passenger compartment of a standard automobile is relatively open to plain view, there are lesser expectations of privacy. But even when enclosed “repository” areas have been involved, we have concluded that the lesser expectations of privacy warrant application of the exception. We have applied the exception in the context of a locked car trunk, a sealed package in a car trunk, a closed compartment under the dashboard, the interior of a vehicle’s upholstery, or sealed packages inside a covered pickup truck.

    These reduced expectations of privacy derive not from the fact that the area to be searched is in plain view, but from the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways. As we explained in South Dakota v. Opperman [428 U.S. 364 (1976)], an inventory search case:

    “Automobiles, unlike homes, are subjected to pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls, including periodic inspection and licensing requirements. As an everyday occurrence, police stop and examine vehicles when license plates or inspection stickers have expired, or if other violations, such as exhaust fumes or excessive noise, are noted, or if headlights or other safety equipment are not in proper working order.”

    The public is fully aware that it is accorded less privacy in its automobiles because of this compelling governmental need for regulation. Historically, “individuals always [have] been on notice that movable vessels may be stopped and searched on facts giving rise to probable cause that the vehicle contains contraband, without the protection afforded by a magistrate’s prior evaluation of those facts.” In short, the pervasive schemes of regulation, which necessarily lead to reduced expectations of privacy, and the exigencies attendant to ready mobility justify searches without prior recourse to the authority of a magistrate so long as the overriding standard of probable cause is met.

    When a vehicle is being used on the highways, or if it is readily capable of such use and is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes—temporary or otherwise—the two justifications for the vehicle exception come into play. First, the vehicle is obviously readily mobile by the turn of an ignition key, if not actually moving. Second, there is a reduced expectation of privacy stemming from its use as a licensed motor vehicle subject to a range of police regulation inapplicable to a fixed dwelling. At least in these circumstances, the overriding societal interests in effective law enforcement justify an immediate search before the vehicle and its occupants become unavailable.

    While it is true that respondent’s vehicle possessed some, if not many of the attributes of a home, it is equally clear that the vehicle falls clearly within the scope of the exception laid down in Carroll and applied in succeeding cases. Like the automobile in Carroll, respondent’s motor home was readily mobile. Absent the prompt search and seizure, it could readily have been moved beyond the reach of the police. Furthermore, the vehicle was licensed to “operate on public streets; [was] serviced in public places; … and [was] subject to extensive regulation and inspection.” And the vehicle was so situated that an objective observer would conclude that it was being used not as a residence, but as a vehicle.

    Respondent urges us to distinguish his vehicle from other vehicles within the exception because it was capable of functioning as a home. In our increasingly mobile society, many vehicles used for transportation can be and are being used not only for transportation but for shelter, i.e., as a “home” or “residence.” To distinguish between respondent’s motor home and an ordinary sedan for purposes of the vehicle exception would require that we apply the exception depending upon the size of the vehicle and the quality of its appointments. Moreover, to fail to apply the exception to vehicles such as a motor home ignores the fact that a motor home lends itself easily to use as an instrument of illicit drug traffic and other illegal activity. We decline today to distinguish between “worthy” and “unworthy” vehicles which are either on the public roads and highways, or situated such that it is reasonable to conclude that the vehicle is not being used as a residence.

    Our application of the vehicle exception has never turned on the other uses to which a vehicle might be put. The exception has historically turned on the ready mobility of the vehicle, and on the presence of the vehicle in a setting that objectively indicates that the vehicle is being used for transportation.5 These two requirements for application of the exception ensure that law enforcement officials are not unnecessarily hamstrung in their efforts to detect and prosecute criminal activity, and that the legitimate privacy interests of the public are protected. Applying the vehicle exception in these circumstances allows the essential purposes served by the exception to be fulfilled, while assuring that the exception will acknowledge legitimate privacy interests.

    The judgment of the California Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice BRENNAN and Justice MARSHALL join, dissenting.

    The character of “the place to be searched” plays an important role in Fourth Amendment analysis. In this case, police officers searched a Dodge/Midas Mini Motor Home. The California Supreme Court correctly characterized this vehicle as a “hybrid” which combines “the mobility attribute of an automobile … with most of the privacy characteristics of a house.”

    The hybrid character of the motor home places it at the crossroads between the privacy interests that generally forbid warrantless invasions of the home and the law enforcement interests that support the exception for warrantless searches of automobiles based on probable cause. By choosing to follow the latter route, the Court errs in three respects: it has entered new territory prematurely, it has accorded priority to an exception rather than to the general rule [of the warrant requirement], and it has abandoned the limits on the exception imposed by prior cases.

    If the motor home were parked in the exact middle of the intersection between the general rule and the exception for automobiles, priority should be given to the rule rather than the exception.

    The motor home, however, was not parked in the middle of that intersection. Our prior cases teach us that inherent mobility is not a sufficient justification for the fashioning of an exception to the warrant requirement, especially in the face of heightened expectations of privacy in the location searched. Motor homes, by their common use and construction, afford their owners a substantial and legitimate expectation of privacy when they dwell within. When a motor home is parked in a location that is removed from the public highway, I believe that society is prepared to recognize that the expectations of privacy within it are not unlike the expectations one has in a fixed dwelling. As a general rule, such places may only be searched with a warrant based upon probable cause. Warrantless searches of motor homes are only reasonable when the motor home is traveling on the public streets or highways, or when exigent circumstances otherwise require an immediate search without the expenditure of time necessary to obtain a warrant.

    In this case, the motor home was parked in an off-the-street lot only a few blocks from the courthouse in downtown San Diego where dozens of magistrates were available to entertain a warrant application. The officers clearly had the element of surprise with them, and with curtains covering the windshield, the motor home offered no indication of any imminent departure. The officers plainly had probable cause to arrest the respondent and search the motor home, and on this record, it is inexplicable why they eschewed the safe harbor of a warrant.

    In my opinion, searches of places that regularly accommodate a wide range of private human activity are fundamentally different from searches of automobiles which primarily serve a public transportation function. Although it may not be a castle, a motor home is usually the functional equivalent of a hotel room, a vacation and retirement home, or a hunting and fishing cabin. These places may be as spartan as a humble cottage when compared to the most majestic mansion, but the highest and most legitimate expectations of privacy associated with these temporary abodes should command the respect of this Court.

    I respectfully dissent.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Imagine that Andy, along with his friends Akiva and T-Pain, is on a boat. Police have probable cause to believe that the boat contains evidence of crime. May police search the boat without a warrant?

    It turns out that the answer is “yes.” Police can search the boat. As indicated by the Court’s references to “movable vessels” searched during the earliest days of the Republic, the automobile exception is not limited to cars, trucks, and other land-based vehicles. It has been applied to boats and airplanes in the same way as to cars. See United States v. Hill, 855 F.2d 664, 668 (10th Cir. 1988) (houseboats); United States v. Albers, 136 F.3d 670, 673 & n.3 (9th Cir. 1997) (noting that when a houseboat is “permanently moored” and therefore not easily mobile, the exception may not apply); United States v. Montgomery, 620 F.2d 753 (10th Cir. 1980) (airplanes); United States v. Nigro, 727 F.2d 100, 107 (6th Cir. 1984) (same).

    The next case allowed the Court to reconsider whether closed containers found inside an automobile are subject to the automobile exception. Students should note that if the answer is yes, then an object not subject to lawful warrantless search (for example, a duffel bag sitting on a sidewalk next to its owner) becomes subject to a lawful warrantless search simply by being moved into a vehicle.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    California v. Charles Steven Acevedo

    Decided May 30, 1991 – 500 U.S. 565

    Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This case requires us once again to consider the so-called “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and its application to the search of a closed container in the trunk of a car.


    On October 28, 1987, Officer Coleman of the Santa Ana, Cal., Police Department received a telephone call from a federal drug enforcement agent in Hawaii. The agent informed Coleman that he had seized a package containing marijuana which was to have been delivered to the Federal Express Office in Santa Ana and which was addressed to J.R. Daza at 805 West Stevens Avenue in that city. The agent arranged to send the package to Coleman instead. Coleman then was to take the package to the Federal Express office and arrest the person who arrived to claim it.

    Coleman received the package on October 29, verified its contents, and took it to the Senior Operations Manager at the Federal Express office. At about 10:30 a.m. on October 30, a man, who identified himself as Jamie Daza, arrived to claim the package. He accepted it and drove to his apartment on West Stevens. He carried the package into the apartment.

    At 11:45 a.m., officers observed Daza leave the apartment and drop the box and paper that had contained the marijuana into a trash bin. Coleman at that point left the scene to get a search warrant. About 12:05 p.m., the officers saw Richard St. George leave the apartment carrying a blue knapsack which appeared to be half full. The officers stopped him as he was driving off, searched the knapsack, and found 1 ½ pounds of marijuana.

    At 12:30 p.m., respondent Charles Steven Acevedo arrived. He entered Daza’s apartment, stayed for about 10 minutes, and reappeared carrying a brown paper bag that looked full. The officers noticed that the bag was the size of one of the wrapped marijuana packages sent from Hawaii. Acevedo walked to a silver Honda in the parking lot. He placed the bag in the trunk of the car and started to drive away. Fearing the loss of evidence, officers in a marked police car stopped him. They opened the trunk and the bag, and found marijuana.

    Respondent was charged in state court with possession of marijuana for sale. He moved to suppress the marijuana found in the car. The motion was denied. He then pleaded guilty but appealed the denial of the suppression motion.

    The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, concluded that the marijuana found in the paper bag in the car’s trunk should have been suppressed.

    The Supreme Court of California denied the State’s petition for review. We granted certiorari to reexamine the law applicable to a closed container in an automobile, a subject that has troubled courts and law enforcement officers since it was first considered.


    Contemporaneously with the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, the First Congress, and, later, the Second and Fourth Congresses, distinguished between the need for a warrant to search for contraband concealed in “a dwelling house or similar place” and the need for a warrant to search for contraband concealed in a movable vessel. In [1925] this Court established an exception to the warrant requirement for moving vehicles, for it recognized

    “a necessary difference between a search of a store, dwelling house or other structure in respect of which a proper official warrant readily may be obtained, and a search of a ship, motor boat, wagon or automobile, for contraband goods, where 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.”

    It therefore held that a warrantless search of an automobile, based upon probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of crime in the light of an exigency arising out of the likely disappearance of the vehicle, did not contravene the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment.

    In United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982), we held that a warrantless search of an automobile under the Carroll doctrine could include a search of a container or package found inside the car when such a search was supported by probable cause. The warrantless search of Ross’ car occurred after an informant told the police that he had seen Ross complete a drug transaction using drugs stored in the trunk of his car. The police stopped the car, searched it, and discovered in the trunk a brown paper bag containing drugs. We decided that the search of Ross’ car was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment: “The scope of a warrantless search based on probable cause is no narrower—and no broader—than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant supported by probable cause.” Thus, “[i]f probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” In Ross, therefore, we clarified the scope of the Carroll doctrine as properly including a “probing search” of compartments and containers within the automobile so long as the search is supported by probable cause.

    In addition to this clarification, Ross distinguished the Carroll doctrine from the separate rule that governed the search of closed containers. The Court had announced this separate rule, unique to luggage and other closed packages, bags, and containers, in United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977). In Chadwick, federal narcotics agents had probable cause to believe that a 200-pound double-locked footlocker contained marijuana. The agents tracked the locker as the defendants removed it from a train and carried it through the station to a waiting car. As soon as the defendants lifted the locker into the trunk of the car, the agents arrested them, seized the locker, and searched it. In this Court, the United States did not contend that the locker’s brief contact with the automobile’s trunk sufficed to make the Carroll doctrine applicable. Rather, the United States urged that the search of movable luggage could be considered analogous to the search of an automobile.

    The Court rejected this argument because, it reasoned, a person expects more privacy in his luggage and personal effects than he does in his automobile. Moreover, it concluded that as “may often not be the case when automobiles are seized,” secure storage facilities are usually available when the police seize luggage.

    In Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753 (1979), the Court extended Chadwick’s rule to apply to a suitcase actually being transported in the trunk of a car. In Sanders, the police had probable cause to believe a suitcase contained marijuana. They watched as the defendant placed the suitcase in the trunk of a taxi and was driven away. The police pursued the taxi for several blocks, stopped it, found the suitcase in the trunk, and searched it. [T]he Sanders majority stressed the heightened privacy expectation in personal luggage and concluded that the presence of luggage in an automobile did not diminish the owner’s expectation of privacy in his personal items.

    In Ross, the Court endeavored to distinguish between Carroll, which governed the Ross automobile search, and Chadwick, which governed the Sanders automobile search. It held that the Carroll doctrine covered searches of automobiles when the police had probable cause to search an entire vehicle, but that the Chadwick doctrine governed searches of luggage when the officers had probable cause to search only a container within the vehicle. Thus, in a Ross situation, the police could conduct a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment without obtaining a warrant, whereas in a Sanders situation, the police had to obtain a warrant before they searched.


    The facts in this case closely resemble the facts in Ross. In Ross, the police had probable cause to believe that drugs were stored in the trunk of a particular car. Here, the California Court of Appeal concluded that the police had probable cause to believe that respondent was carrying marijuana in a bag in his car’s trunk. Furthermore, for what it is worth, in Ross, as here, the drugs in the trunk were contained in a brown paper bag.

    We now must decide the question deferred in Ross: whether the Fourth Amendment requires the police to obtain a warrant to open the sack in a movable vehicle simply because they lack probable cause to search the entire car. We conclude that it does not.


    Dissenters in Ross asked why the suitcase in Sanders was “more private, less difficult for police to seize and store, or in any other relevant respect more properly subject to the warrant requirement, than a container that police discover in a probable-cause search of an entire automobile?” We now agree that a container found after a general search of the automobile and a container found in a car after a limited search for the container are equally easy for the police to store and for the suspect to hide or destroy. In fact, we see no principled distinction in terms of either the privacy expectation or the exigent circumstances between the paper bag found by the police in Ross and the paper bag found by the police here. Furthermore, by attempting to distinguish between a container for which the police are specifically searching and a container which they come across in a car, we have provided only minimal protection for privacy and have impeded effective law enforcement.

    The line between probable cause to search a vehicle and probable cause to search a package in that vehicle is not always clear, and separate rules that govern the two objects to be searched may enable the police to broaden their power to make warrantless searches and disserve privacy interests. We noted this in Ross in the context of a search of an entire vehicle. Recognizing that under Carroll, the “entire vehicle itself … could be searched without a warrant,” we concluded that “prohibiting police from opening immediately a container in which the object of the search is most likely to be found and instead forcing them first to comb the entire vehicle would actually exacerbate the intrusion on privacy interests.” At the moment when officers stop an automobile, it may be less than clear whether they suspect with a high degree of certainty that the vehicle contains drugs in a bag or simply contains drugs. If the police know that they may open a bag only if they are actually searching the entire car, they may search more extensively than they otherwise would in order to establish the general probable cause required by Ross.

    We cannot see the benefit of a rule that requires law enforcement officers to conduct a more intrusive search in order to justify a less intrusive one.

    To the extent that the Chadwick-Sanders rule protects privacy, its protection is minimal. Law enforcement officers may seize a container and hold it until they obtain a search warrant. “Since the police, by hypothesis, have probable cause to seize the property, we can assume that a warrant will be routinely forthcoming in the overwhelming majority of cases.”

    Finally, the search of a paper bag intrudes far less on individual privacy than does the incursion sanctioned long ago in Carroll. In that case, prohibition agents slashed the upholstery of the automobile. This Court nonetheless found their search to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. If destroying the interior of an automobile is not unreasonable, we cannot conclude that looking inside a closed container is. In light of the minimal protection to privacy afforded by the Chadwick-Sanders rule, and our serious doubt whether that rule substantially serves privacy interests, we now hold that the Fourth Amendment does not compel separate treatment for an automobile search that extends only to a container within the vehicle.


    The Chadwick-Sanders rule not only has failed to protect privacy but also has confused courts and police officers and impeded effective law enforcement.

    Although we have recognized firmly that the doctrine of stare decisis serves profoundly important purposes in our legal system, this Court has overruled a prior case on the comparatively rare occasion when it has bred confusion or been a derelict or led to anomalous results. We conclude that it is better to adopt one clear-cut rule to govern automobile searches and eliminate the warrant requirement for closed containers set forth in Sanders.


    The interpretation of the Carroll doctrine set forth in Ross now applies to all searches of containers found in an automobile. In other words, the police may search without a warrant if their search is supported by probable cause.

    “Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab.” We reaffirm that principle. In the case before us, the police had probable cause to believe that the paper bag in the automobile’s trunk contained marijuana. That probable cause now allows a warrantless search of the paper bag. The facts in the record reveal that the police did not have probable cause to believe that contraband was hidden in any other part of the automobile and a search of the entire vehicle would have been without probable cause and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

    Until today, this Court has drawn a curious line between the search of an automobile that coincidentally turns up a container and the search of a container that coincidentally turns up in an automobile. The protections of the Fourth Amendment must not turn on such coincidences. We therefore interpret Carroll as providing one rule to govern all automobile searches. The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.

    The judgment of the California Court of Appeal is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

    Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

    It is “‘a cardinal principle that ‘searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.”’

    Relying on arguments that conservative judges have repeatedly rejected in past cases, the Court today—despite its disclaimer to the contrary—enlarges the scope of the automobile exception to this “cardinal principle,” which undergirded our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

    Our decisions have always acknowledged that the warrant requirement imposes a burden on law enforcement. And our cases have not questioned that trained professionals normally make reliable assessments of the existence of probable cause to conduct a search. We have repeatedly held, however, that these factors are outweighed by the individual interest in privacy that is protected by advance judicial approval. The Fourth Amendment dictates that the privacy interest is paramount, no matter how marginal the risk of error might be if the legality of warrantless searches were judged only after the fact.

    In its opinion today, the Court recognizes that the police did not have probable cause to search respondent’s vehicle and that a search of anything but the paper bag that respondent had carried from Daza’s apartment and placed in the trunk of his car would have been unconstitutional. Moreover, as I read the opinion, the Court assumes that the police could not have made a warrantless inspection of the bag before it was placed in the car. Finally, the Court also does not question the fact that, under our prior cases, it would have been lawful for the police to seize the container and detain it (and respondent) until they obtained a search warrant. Thus, all of the relevant facts that governed our decisions in Chadwick and Sanders are present here whereas the relevant fact that justified the vehicle search in Ross is not present.

    The Court does not attempt to identify any exigent circumstances that would justify its refusal to apply the general rule against warrantless searches.

    It is too early to know how much freedom America has lost today. The magnitude of the loss is, however, not nearly as significant as the Court’s willingness to inflict it without even a colorable basis for its rejection of prior law.

    I respectfully dissent.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Imagine that police suspect a person of committing vehicular homicide. The issue is whether the suspect’s actions before a fatal crash qualify as criminal conduct or are instead merely tortious (or perhaps not even blameworthy). Does the automobile exception allow police to search the car’s internal computer without a warrant? See State v. Mobley, 834 S.E.2d 785 (Ga. 2019). The Mobley Court described the data searched by police in a Georgia case.

    The record shows that an ACM, also known as an “event data recorder” or “electronic control module,” is an onboard electronic data recording device that is designed to preserve certain data about the operation of a vehicle in the moments preceding certain occurrences, including any event that results in the deployment of airbags. Although the precise data preserved varies from vehicle to vehicle, the data retrieved from the Charger in this case included the speed of the vehicle, the status of the brakes, the status of the brake switch, the time from maximum deceleration to impact, the time from impact to airbag deployment, the speed of the engine, the throttle position, the number of crankshaft revolutions per minute, the status of the driver’s seatbelt, and a diagnostic indicator about the functioning of the ACM.

    What arguments best support applying the automobile exception to these data sources? What arguments best support not applying the exception?

    The issue remains unsettled, and different courts will likely make different judgments. More background on the issue, see the amicus brief filed in Mobley by the American Civil Liberties Union.

    In Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (2018), the Court decided “whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein.” For the majority, the question was straightforward. In an opinion joined by six other Justices, Justice Sotomayor wrote: “Because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes’ invasion of the curtilage. Nothing in this Court’s case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant. Such an expansion would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and ‘“untether”’ the exception ‘“from the justifications underlying”’ it.” The Court rejected the idea “that the automobile exception is a categorical one that permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime, anywhere, including in a home or curtilage.”

    Justice Alito dissented sharply, quoting Charles Dickens: “If that is the law, [a character in Oliver Twist] exclaimed, ‘the law is a ass—a idiot.’” Justice Alito noted, “If the motorcycle had been parked at the curb, instead of in the driveway, it is undisputed that Rhodes could have searched it without obtaining a warrant.” He found it bizarre that search became “unreasonable” “[b]ecause, in order to reach the motorcycle, [the officer] had to walk 30 feet or so up the driveway of the house rented by petitioner’s girlfriend, and by doing that, … invaded the home’s ‘curtilage.’”

    This page titled 2.8: Chapter 9 - Warrant Exceptions is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anne M Alexander and Ben Trachtenberg (CALI- The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction) .