The automobile exception swallows the rule: Florida v. White.

AuthorChilcoat, Kendra Hillman
PositionTransparent Adjudication and Social Science Research in Constitutional Criminal Procedure

Florida v. White, 119 S. Ct. 1555 (1999)


    In Florida v. White, the United States Supreme Court held that the warrantless seizure of an automobile did not violate the Fourth Amendment where that automobile, which had been used in the commission of a drug offense two months before the seizure, was defined as seizable contraband under Florida state law.(1)

    White continues the Supreme Court's long-term expansion of the so-called "automobile exception," a category of searches and seizures that involves cars and other vehicles in increasingly tangential ways.(2) This exception originally was grounded in the notion that evidence in a stopped vehicle created an exigency that made the warrant process infeasible.(3) The Court has since expanded the exception to cases involving mobile homes(4) and now in circumstances where probable cause developed months before seizure.(5)

    This Note illustrates that the automobile exception has increasingly diverged from Fourth Amendment precedent. It also demonstrates that cases relying upon the automobile exception have become divorced from the Fourth Amendment's purpose: protecting individuals from abusive governmental intrusions.(6) When compared to recent cases, White is an apparently small and innocuous step in increasing police power. This Note, however, argues that White and its progeny are part of a disturbing long-term trend of eliminating the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.(7) Finally, this Note contends that it would behoove the Court to recall that the automobile exception is an exception to the warrant requirement and not the rule itself.



      The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that:

      The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.(8) It was added to the Constitution as a means to protect individual liberties from governmental abuses.(9) The Framers of the Constitution were extremely concerned about the general warrants and warrantless searches that were part of the colonial regime.(10) By drafting a requirement for individualized warrants, the Framers hoped to prevent the privacy invasions inherent in general warrants and warrantless searches. It is generally accepted that the Fourth Amendment's "reasonableness" clause condones certain warrantless searches and seizures.(11) The Court has held, however, that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable.(12)


      1. The Exception is Born: Carroll

        The "automobile exception" originated in 1925 with Carroll v. United States.(13) The exception affords decreased Fourth Amendment protections for searches and seizures connected to cars. In Carroll, the police had reason to believe that a car fleeing pursuit contained contraband alcohol.(14) The officers pulled over the car, searched it without a warrant, and found sixty-eight bottles of illegal alcohol.(15) The Court held that the officers did not need a warrant, so long as they had probable cause to suspect that the car contained contraband.(16) The Court rationalized its decision through two closely linked analyses.

        First, the Court explored the nature of search and seizure law at the time of the Fourth Amendment's ratification.(17) The Court concluded that:

        [C]ontemporaneously with the adoption of the Fourth Amendment we find in the first Congress, and in the following Second and Fourth Congresses, a difference made as to the necessity for a search warrant between goods subject to forfeiture, when concealed in a dwelling house or similar place, and like goods in course of transportation and concealed in a movable vessel where they readily could be put out of reach of a search warrant.(18) Thus, the Court used the Framers' intent to create an exception to the warrant requirement in cases where the item searched was highly mobile.

        Second, the Court found the distinction between mobile and stationary contraband containers to be pragmatic.(19) The historical record supported the idea that courts' and legislatures' construction of the Fourth Amendment had always distinguished between mobile and immobile items.(20) For example, the Court noted that courts and legislatures have distinguished between searches of stores or houses and searches of boats, wagons, or cars.(21) Vehicles may create a situation "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."(22) In Carroll, the defendants were fleeing pursuit. That pursuit, and the concomitant possibility of destroyed evidence, created an exigency which made a warrantless search necessary.(23) The Court therefore held that a warrantless search or seizure might be necessary where contraband would otherwise be moved beyond the reach of the law.(24)

        The progeny of Carroll primarily relied on one or both of two automobile characteristics to justify warrantless searches and seizures: mobility and publicness.(25) Courts initially approached the automobile exception with the presumption that warrantless searches and seizures were "per se unreasonable."(26) Subsequently, the requirements have become increasingly lenient.(27)

      2. Mobility as a Rationale for the Automobile Exception

        The first important expansion on the Carroll doctrine of mobility occurred in Chambers v. Maroney,(28) which held that automobiles are inherently mobile.(29) In that case, two armed individuals robbed a service station and fled in their car.(30) Police stopped a car matching the description given by service station attendants and arrested the defendants.(31) The officers seized the car without a warrant.(32) After bringing the vehicle to the police station, the officers conducted a warrantless search of the car and found two guns, which they later used as evidence.(33)

        Although the car was no longer mobile, the Court used the car's potential mobility as a rationale to uphold the warrantless search.(34) The court first noted that under Carroll's probable cause requirement, a warrantless search would have been constitutional at the time the car was stopped.(35) The search would have been justified because the defendants were fleeing pursuit and because evidence would have disappeared without an immediate search.(36) The potential loss of evidence created an exigency justifying a warrantless search.(37) Essentially without explanation, the Court contended that the later search at the police station was also justifiable because of a potential loss of evidence.(38) The Court noted that the mobility of the car "still obtained at the station house," as did probable cause.(39) The Court upheld the search, finding a warrantless search more practical and desirable than detainment of the car while officers sought a warrant.(40) Thus, the car itself somehow remained "mobile" for constitutional purposes in spite of the fact that it was in police custody.(41) This reasoning contrasts with Carroll,(42) in which it was clear that a car (and therefore evidence) would have disappeared if officers had not conducted an immediate search.

        The Court declined to expand the mobility rationale for warrantless searches and seizures in United States v. Chadwick.(43) In Chadwick, the Court refused to extend the automobile exception to the warrantless search of a footlocker in the locked trunk of a car.(44) In stark contrast to later cases, the Court noted that:

        [n]o less than one who locks the doors of his home against intruders, one who safeguards his personal possessions in this manner is due the protection of the Fourth Amendment Warrant Clause. There being no exigency, it was unreasonable for the Government to conduct this search without the safeguards a judicial warrant provides.(45) Only a few years later, the Court overruled Chadwick in United States v. Ross, in which the majority held that a car's mobility could sustain the warrantless search of a closed container within the locked trunk of a car.(46) In support of the mobility rationale, the Court relied heavily on Carroll's historical exploration of the mobility issue.(47) The Ross Court said that "since its earliest days Congress had recognized the impracticability of securing a warrant in cases involving the transportation of contraband goods."(48) The Court's interpretation of Carroll was that "the nature of an automobile in transit" justified a warrantless search.(49) Since both the trunk in Ross and the alcohol in Carroll were in transit, the Court found them equally searchable.(50) The Court concluded that disallowing container searches would defeat the purpose of Carroll, saying, "the practical consequences of the Carroll decision would be largely nullified if the permissible scope of a warrantless search of an automobile did not include the containers and packages found inside the vehicle."(51) Ross, then, reinvoked Carroll and expanded the automobile exception to closed containers within vehicles.

        In California v. Carney, the Court expanded the mobility rationale to include the warrantless search of mobile homes.(52) In justification, the Court relied both on mobility and on a privacy rationale.(53) Citing earlier cases that used the mobility rationale, the Court stated that "the vehicle is obviously readily mobile by the turn of an ignition key, if not actually moving.... [T]he overriding social interests in effective law enforcement justify an immediate search before the vehicle and its occupants become unavailable."(54) Carney, then, expanded the automobile exception in a manner that began to threaten the home, a location formerly afforded a very high level of Fourth Amendment protection. In the end, Carney...

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