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Automobile Searches

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The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees U.S. citizens freedom from "unreasonable searches and seizures." In Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 88 S. Ct. 507, 19 L. Ed. 2d 576 (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court established the principle that a warrant issued by a "neutral and detached magistrate" must be obtained before a government authority may breach the individual privacy that the Fourth Amendment secures. The Katz decision held that "searches that are 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." Over the years, the Court has recognized a number of exceptions to this rule that allow the police to conduct a legal search without a warrant in certain situations. One of these exceptions is for automobile searches.

Contents

Warrantless Searches

The automobile exception was first announced in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 45 S. Ct. 280, 69 L. Ed. 543 (1925), where the Court held that federal prohibition agents had been justified in searching, without a warrant, an automobile that they had stopped on a public highway, because the agents had had probable cause to believe that it contained contraband. The Court found that the search had been justified by the exigency of the circumstances, noting that, unlike a dwelling, store, or other structure, an automobile can be "quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought."

After the Carroll decision, the Court embarked on a long, and often confusing, line of decisions that interpreted the automobile exception as it applied not only to automobiles but also to containers found in automobiles; to mobile homes; and to sobriety checkpoints. For several decades, the Court rarely cited Carroll in vehicle-search cases. Instead, it relied on the "search incident to arrest" doctrine, which allowed the police to search, without a warrant, the areas surrounding an arrest site. Originally, the police could search areas that were outside the control of the arrested person. (See, e.g., Harris v. Stephens, 361 F.2d 888 [8th Cir. 1966], cert. denied, 386 U.S. 964 [1967], in which the Court let stand a ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that the search of a car parked in a driveway, while the suspect was arrested at the front door of his house, was valid). However, the Court restricted the "search incident to arrest" standard in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S. Ct. 2034, 23 L. Ed. 2d 685 (1969), which held that a warrantless search must be limited to the area within the immediate control of the arrestee.

After the Chimel decision, the Court abandoned this line of reasoning and returned to the "probable cause accompanied by exigent circumstances" rationale in Carroll. In Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 90 S. Ct. 1975, 26 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1970), the justices found that Carroll supported a warrantless search of an impounded car. They based this finding on the theory that had the search been conducted at the time of the arrest, it would have been valid because of the exigent circumstances that existed at that time. The fact that the car was impounded, and there fore immobile, by the time the search was conducted did not affect the Court's decision. A year later, in Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 91 S. Ct. 2022, 29 L. Ed. 2d 564 (1971) (plurality opinion), the Court held that a search conducted with a warrant that was later found to be invalid fell outside of the automobile exception. The Court stated that the police in Coolidge could not have legally conducted a warrantless search at the arrest scene because no exigent circumstances existed: At the time of arrest, the arrestee had not had access to the car and therefore could not have moved it. The Coolidge decision firmly established that the police must show both probable cause and exigent circumstances in order for a warrantless search to be valid.

The Court then added an alternative rationale to support automobile searches, with its decision in Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 94 S. Ct. 2464, 41 L. Ed. 2d 325 (1974) (plurality opinion). In Cardwell, the police had made an impression of the tires of the suspect's car and had taken paint samples from the car, without a warrant. The Court held that the search had been permissible because the police had had probable cause and the search had been conducted in a reasonable manner. No exigency had existed in this case, but the Court found justification in the principle that individuals have a "lower expectation of privacy" in their automobiles. Writing for the plurality, Justice Harry A. Blackmun stated, "One has a lesser expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle because its function is transportation and it seldom serves as one's residence or as the repository of personal effects."

The same rationale supported the Court's determination that police officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they search a passenger's personal belongings inside an automobile that they have probable cause to believe contains contraband. Officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers' belongings that are capable of concealing the object of the search. If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, including every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search, then this rule extends to passengers' property as well, the Supreme Court wrote in Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 119 S.Ct. 1297, 143 L.Ed.2d 408 (U.S. 1999). The balancing of the relative interests weighs in favor of allowing searches of a passenger's belongings, because passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property that they transport in cars.

This "lesser expectation of privacy" rationale was not sufficient to support a warrantless search in United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 97 S. Ct. 2476, 53 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1977). In Chadwick, the defendants were arrested immediately after they had placed a footlocker in their trunk. Federal agents, who had probable cause to believe that the footlocker contained marijuana, impounded the car and opened the footlocker without a warrant. The Court found that although the agents did have probable cause to search the footlocker, they had not proved that they had probable cause to search the car in order to find the footlocker. Since the car was impounded, no exigent circumstances existed. Furthermore, the Court held that the defendants had a greater expectation of privacy in the closed footlocker than in an automobile, which is open to public view. "The factors which diminish the privacy aspects of an automobile do not apply to the (defendants') footlocker,"the Court concluded. Therefore, the "lesser expectation of privacy" rationale did not support an extension of the automobile exception to the closed footlocker.

Armed with the Carroll-Chambers line of cases (the "probable cause accompanied by exigent circumstances" rationale) and the Chadwick decision (the "lower expectation of privacy" rationale), the Court tackled the question of whether a warrantless search of a suitcase found in the trunk of a taxi fell under either justification. In Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753, 99 S. Ct. 2586, 61 L. Ed. 2d 235 (1979), the police had probable cause to believe that a suitcase picked up by the defendant at an airport contained contraband. After the defendant placed the suitcase in the trunk of a taxi and left the airport, the police stopped the taxi, opened the trunk, and searched the suitcase, which contained the contraband that they expected to find. The Court evaluated the facts under each rationale and found that (a) once the taxi had been stopped, no exigency existed; and, (b) an individual's privacy expectations in a suitcase, which "serve[s] as a repository for personal items," are greater than his or her privacy expectations in an automobile. For these reasons, the Court held that the search had violated the Fourth Amendment.

Later cases, however, extended the automobile exception to containers located in an automobile, where authorities have probable cause to search the automobile. For example, in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S. Ct. 2157, 72 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1982), the police stopped a car that they had probable cause to believe contained contraband. Without a warrant, they opened a closed paper bag that they found inside the car's trunk, and discovered heroin. The Court held that the search was valid, reasoning that if the police had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle, they also had justification to search the bag.

However, the Court retreated from this holding in Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 119S.Ct. 484, 142 L.Ed.2d 492 (U.S. 1998), where it held that a Fourth Amendment violation had occurred when a police officer had conducted a full search of a car, including the trunk, after the driver had been stopped for speeding. The officer had issued the driver a citation, rather than arresting him, although Iowa law would have permitted an arrest. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the search could not be sustained under the "search incident to arrest" exception to the warrant requirement, as the underlying rationales for the exception, including the need to disarm the suspect and to preserve evidence, did not justify the search of the car's trunk. While the concern for officer safety in the context of a routine traffic stop might justify the minimal additional intrusion of ordering a driver and passengers out of the car, the Court said, it does not, by itself, justify the often considerably greater intrusion attending a full field-type search.

The automobile exception was also extended to searches of some mobile homes, in Californiav. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 105 S. Ct. 2066, 85 L. Ed. 2d 406 (1985). In Carney, the police had searched a motor home that was parked in a public lot. The Court found the search to be valid, stating that the mobile home was being used for transportation and that it therefore was as readily movable as an automobile. In addition, the Court noted a reduced expectation of privacy in a mobile home, as contrasted with an ordinary residence, as mobile homes, like cars, are regulated by the state. In this case, where the mobile home was parked in a public parking lot, rather than a mobile home park, and was not anchored in any way, it resembled a vehicle more than a residence. Therefore, the automobile exception applied. Carney established not only that the automobile exception applies to some mobile homes but also that it applies to parked vehicles.

Another extension of the automobile exception, called the inventory exception, was recognized by the Court in South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 96 S. Ct. 3092, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1000 (1976). Donald Opperman's illegally parked vehicle was ticketed and towed to an impound lot, where the police inventoried its contents. In an unlocked glove compartment, they found marijuana. The Court held that once a vehicle has been legally impounded, its contents may be inventoried. Three justifications were given: protection of the owner's property while it is in police custody; protection of the police against claims; and protection of the police against danger. Likewise, in Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 107 S. Ct. 738, 93 L. Ed. 2d 739 (1987), the Court found that marijuana discovered in a closed backpack during an inventory of an impounded vehicle had been legally seized because there was no showing that "the police, who had followed standardized procedures, had acted in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation." The Court concluded that "reasonable police regulations relating to inventory procedures administered in good faith satisfy the Fourth Amendment."

This patchwork of decisions led many, including Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., to conclude that "the law of search and seizure with respect to automobiles is intolerably confusing" (Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420, 101 S. Ct. 2841, 69 L. Ed. 2d 744 [1981] [Powell, J., concurring]). The Court attempted to put the confusion to rest with its decision in California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 111 S. Ct. 1982, 114 L. Ed. 2d 619 (1991). In Acevedo, federal drug agents tracked a bag that they knew contained marijuana, as it was in transit to the defendant. They then notified police officers, who watched as the defendant put the bag into the trunk of a car and drove away. The police officers stopped the car, opened the trunk, and searched the bag, finding the marijuana. The Court held that the search was legal, stating that it is not necessary for an officer to obtain a warrant before searching a container located in an automobile when the officer has probable cause to believe that the container holds contraband or evidence. After analyzing the long and ambiguous line of automobile exception cases, the Court decided that the distinction between the Ross situation (where the police had probable cause to search the car) and the Sanders situation (where the police had probable cause only to search the container) was not supported by the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Discarding the reasoning in Sanders as unworkable and an unjustified impingement on legitimate police activity, the justices announced a new and unequivocal rule: "The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained."

The Acevedo decision was met with harsh criticism by some legal analysts, who saw it as an excessive retreat from Fourth Amendment guarantees. Supporters, however, pointed out that the police still must establish that they have probable cause to conduct a warrantless search before such a search will be found valid. Probable cause can be shown in a variety of ways, but generally it follows from a chain of events that raise police suspicions from the level of mere conjecture to the level of reasonable grounds. For example, in Acevedo, federal drug enforcement agents had previously seized and inspected the package that was eventually delivered to the defendant, and they knew that it contained marijuana. In Sanders, a reliable informant had told the police that the defendant would arrive at the airport carrying a green suitcase containing marijuana. And in Ross, an informant had told the police that someone known as Bandit was selling drugs from the trunk of his car; when the police located the car described by the informant, they discovered through a computer check that the driver, the defendant, Albert Ross Jr., used the alias Bandit. From these cases, the Court has shown that arbitrary searches or searches based on mere suspicion will not be supported by a spurious claim of probable cause.

Warrantless Seizures of Automobile as Forfeitable Contraband

The Fourth Amendment does not require the police to obtain a warrant before seizing an


automobile from a public place when they have probable cause to believe that it is forfeitable contraband. The U.S. Supreme Court thus reversed a decision in which the Supreme Court of Florida had held that the warrantless seizure of an automobile, pursuant to the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, violated the Fourth Amendment in the absence of exigent circumstances. Florida v. White, 526 U.S. 559, 119 S. Ct. 1555, 143 L. Ed. 2d 748 (1999).

The case involved a defendant who had been convicted of possession of cocaine, which had been found during a police inventory search of his automobile following its warrantless seizure from a public parking lot pursuant to the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act. Fla. Stat.932.701. Although the police lacked probable cause to believe that the defendant's car contained contraband, they did have probable cause to believe that the vehicle itself was contraband under the Florida law.

Fourth Amendment jurisprudence recognizes the need to seize readily movable contraband before it is spirited away, and this need is equally weighty when the automobile, as distinguished from its contents, is the very contraband that the police seek to secure, the Court observed. In addition to the special considerations recognized in the context of movable items, the Court continued, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has consistently afforded law enforcement officials greater latitude in exercising their duties in public places. Because the police had seized defendant's vehicle from a public area, the Court concluded that the warrantless seizure had not involved any invasion of the defendant's privacy.

Sobriety Checkpoints

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Court dealt with a new line of cases in which the automobile exception has been used to justify sobriety-checkpoint programs. Under such programs, police stop motorists, typically along an interstate highway, for the purpose of apprehending drivers who are impaired by alcohol. One such program was challenged and found to be constitutional in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444, 110 S. Ct. 2481, 110 L. Ed. 2d 412 (1990). The Court applied a somewhat more stringent test than that used in automobile search cases, citing as relevant authority a line of cases involving highway checkpoints for discovering illegal aliens (see, e.g., United States v. Martinez, 428 U.S. 543, 96 S. Ct. 3074, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1116 [1976]; Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 99 S. Ct. 2637, 61 L. Ed. 2d 357 [1979]). Brown required "a weighing of the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest, and the severity of the interference with individual liberty." Applying that balancing test, the majority in Sitz found that the intrusion on individual liberty imposed by Michigan's sobriety checkpoint program was outweighed by the advancement of the state's interest in preventing drunk driving. Therefore, it concluded that the program did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Similar sobriety-checkpoint programs have been used in other states. Since the Sitz decision, all have passed constitutional muster. Less certain is the constitutionality of narcotics checkpoints. In 1992, Minnesota instituted a random narcotics checkpoint on an interstate highway's exit ramp. The police stopped every third or fourth car and asked several questions of the occupants. If the answers or demeanor of the occupants aroused suspicion, the car was diverted for further investigation. A number of individuals were cited when police found marijuana, either in plain view or after a consensual search of the vehicle.

The Minnesota scheme raises serious constitutional questions. The state has a legitimate interest in curbing the use of illegal drugs. However, it is not clear that a narcotics-checkpoint program is a valid means of promoting this interest, in light of the privacy interest violated by random questioning for investigation of drug possession or use. Similarly, it is unclear whether the Minnesota scheme is the type of minimal intrusion that the Court sanctioned in Sitz. Still, the Sitz and Acevedo decisions, both of which have been criticized as giving too much discretion to the police, indicate that the Court intends to allow a great deal of latitude to law enforcement officials in stopping and searching automobiles under most conditions.

Further Readings

Blade, Bryan S. 1991. "Fourth Amendment—The Constitutionality of a Sobriety Checkpoint Program." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 81 (winter).

Braeske, Chris. 1993. "The Drug War Comes to a Highway Near You: Police Power to Effectuate Highway 'Narcotics Checkpoints' under the Federal and State Constitutions." Law and Inequality 11 (June).

Fisanick, Christian A. 2002. Vehicle Search Law Deskbook. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West.

Grant, Marguerite T., ed. 2003. Motor Vehicle Stops: Update on the Law Governing Police Searches and Roadside Questioning. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education.

King, Lawrence T. 1988. "The Inventory Exception to the Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement: Why the Last in Should Be the First Out—or, Putting Opperman and Bertine in Their Place." American Journal of Trial Advocacy 12 (fall).

Kole, Edward T. 1987. "Parked Motor Home Held to Be within Scope of Automobile Exception to Warrant Requirement—California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985)." Seton Hall Law Review 17 (summer).

Lally, Nicole C. 2000. "Constitutional Law—Fourth Amendment Protection Against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures: Valid Automobile Search Includes a Passenger's Belongings." Tennessee Law Review 67 (winter): 455–73.

Logan, Wayne A. 2002. "Street Legal: The Court Affords Police Constitutional Carte Blanche." Indiana Law Journal 77 (summer): 419–67.

Soden, Steven D. 1992. "Expansion of the 'Automobile Exception' to the Warrant Requirement: Police Discretion Replaces the 'Neutral and Detached Magistrate.'" Missouri Law Review 57 (spring).

See Also

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