Automobile Searches

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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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

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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.

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."


The right to move about freely without fear of governmental interference is one of the cornerstones of democracy in America. Likewise, freedom from governmental intrusions into personal privacy is a cherished U.S. right. Automobiles have come to symbolize these rights in the United States, but freedom and autonomy often conflict with law enforcement's interest in preserving domestic order.

The FOURTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution guarantees U.S. citizens freedom from "unreasonable searches and seizures." The Supreme Court, in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 88S. Ct. 507, 19 L. Ed. 2d 576 (1967), interpreted the Fourth Amendment to mean that a warrant issued by a "neutral and detached magistrate" must be obtained before police officers may lawfully search PERSONAL PROPERTY. The Court in Katz held that "searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by a judge or magistrate are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment?subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions."

In its struggle to balance the Fourth Amendment's personal privacy guarantees with the government's interest in effective law enforcement, the Court has allowed numerous exceptions to the warrant requirement, prompting debate over the amendment's continued viability. A particularly tricky area involves decisions regarding warrantless automobile searches.

Beginning with its decision in Carrollv. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 45 S. Ct. 280, 69 L. Ed. 543 (1925), the Court has granted law enforcement personnel substantial latitude when searching automobiles and their contents. Carroll and its progeny established that automobiles constitute a distinct class of personal property that deserves less privacy protection than other types of property. The Court has consistently held that because a car and its contents are easily and quickly moved, police officers need not obtain a warrant to search them if they reasonably believe that doing so would result in lost evidence.

Since its decision in Carroll, the Supreme Court has articulated several rationales for allowing warrantless vehicle searches. First, the Court followed Carroll and held that a warrantless search of an automobile is valid because of the exigent circumstances involved (see, e.g., Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 90 S. Ct. 1975, 26 L. Ed. 2d 419 [1970]). Next, the Court found that warrantless automobile searches are justified because individuals have a lower expectation of privacy in their automobiles than in their homes (see, e.g., Cardwell v. Lewis, 417U.S. 583, 94 S. Ct. 2464, 41 L. Ed. 2d 325[1974] [plurality opinion]). Finally, the Court extended the warrant exception to containers found inside a vehicle, reasoning that if the police could legally search an automobile, they could also legally search containers found in the automobile (see United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S. Ct. 2157, 72 L. Ed. 2d 572[1982]). However, the Court had previously ruled that where a vehicle search was illegal, a subsequent search of a suitcase found inside the trunk of the vehicle was also illegal (Arkansas v. Sanders, 442U.S. 753, 99 S. Ct. 2586, 61 L. Ed. 2d 235[1979]). The need to distinguish between a Sanders situation and a Ross situation caused some confusion, both for the police and for the courts. This need was finally addressed by the Court in 1991.

Underlying all the exceptions to the warrant requirement is the need to assist law enforcement personnel without unduly trampling on the Constitution. However, some have argued that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of POLICE POWER. In 1991, the Court extended the permissible scope of the warrant exception with its decision in California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 111 S. Ct. 1982, 114 L. Ed. 2d 619, which upheld the warrantless search of a bag found inside the defendant's vehicle. In an attempt to clarify the law regarding warrantless searches of containers found in automobiles, the justices announced that the Fourth Amendment does not require a distinction between PROBABLE CAUSE to search an entire vehicle, including containers found inside (as in Ross), and probable cause to search only a container found inside an automobile (as in Sanders). The Court announced a new and succinct rule regarding 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 Acevedo decision provides what is known as a bright-line rule, that is, a RULE OF LAW that is clear and unequivocal. But bright-line rules can obscure the important nuances that surround an issue. The Acevedo decision left little doubt in the minds of law enforcement personnel that they could, with probable cause, search not only an automobile but also any containers found inside. But that clarity and the unfettered discretion it gives the police trouble some legal analysts. They assert that the ruling effectively guts the Fourth Amendment as it applies to automobile searches and, perhaps more disturbing, that its reasoning could and probably will be applied to searches of other types of personal property.

Justice JOHN PAUL STEVENS noted in his dissent to Acevedo that the majority's ruling creates the paradoxical situation in which a container, such as a briefcase, is not subject to a warrantless search when it is carried in full view on a public street but becomes subject to such a search upon being placed inside an automobile.

Critics of Acevedo also argue that it contradicts earlier rationales established to support exceptions to the warrant requirement. In Acevedo, the Court found no exigent circumstances to justify the search, as it had in Carroll, since the police could have legally seized the bag and obtained a warrant for a later search. Neither, assert critics, would the defendant's expectation of privacy in the bag be diminished by virtue of his placing it into the automobile.

Lacking both exigency and the lesser expectation of privacy justifications, the Court turned to policy considerations to support its decision in Acevedo. The majority stated that law enforcement personnel were unnecessarily impeded by the Court's previous rulings on this issue. The Court dismissed privacy concerns by stating that protection of privacy is minimal anyway, since in many automobile search cases the police may legally search a container under the "search-incidentto-arrest" justification. Critics respond that the policy underlying that exception is that the police should be able to secure the arrest site in order to protect their safety; it does not follow that the police should be allowed to search containers even when they are not...

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