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California v. Carney

Is It A Car Or A Home?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects persons from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the amendment generally requires police to obtain a search warrant from a magistrate before conducting a search, and that state governments, in addition to the federal government, must follow the amendment. There are many exceptions to the warrant requirement for police searches, and one of the issues that arises in the context of police searches is precisely what may be searched without a warrant.

The premises of a dwelling is a place that receives the most Fourth Amendment protection. Generally, law enforcement personnel must obtain a search warrant from a magistrate before conducting a search of a home. By contrast, a police officer need not obtain a search warrant before searching an automobile. This rule, created by courts shortly after the invention of the automobile and commonly called the automobile exception, is in place because motorized vehicles are mobile and can be quickly moved from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, thwarting the enforcement of criminal laws. Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in California v. Carney, the question remained as to whether mobile dwellings, such as a boat, camper, or motor home, should be afforded the same protection as stationary homes, or whether they should be treated as automobiles.

On 31 May 1979, in San Diego, California, Robert Williams, an agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency, observed Charles Carney escort a boy into a Dodge Mini Motor Home. The mobile motor home was parked in a parking lot, and Williams was watching the motor home because he had received information that the home was being used as a site for exchanging sex for marijuana. After 75 minutes, Williams saw the boy leave the home. A short time later, DEA agents stopped the boy, who told them that he had received marijuana from Carney and that he had, in return, allowed Carney to engage in sexual contact with him.

The agents and the boy returned to the camper and the agents instructed the boy to knock on the door. Carney answered the door and then stepped outside. Without obtaining Carney's consent or a search warrant from a magistrate, an agent went inside Carney's mobile home. When the agent spotted marijuana, plastic baggies, and a weight scale, Carney was placed under arrest and charged with possession of marijuana for sale.

At a preliminary hearing in the case, Carney asked the court to suppress the marijuana evidence, arguing that it had been obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. The search was illegal, Carney maintained, because the motor home was his dwelling and the law enforcement officers had failed to obtain a warrant or his permission. Carney also claimed that there were no exigent circumstances requiring quick action, an exceptional circumstance that allows law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless searches of homes. Carney's motion was denied by the magistrate. Just prior to trial, Carney renewed his request to the judge in Superior Court, but the request was again denied. Carney proceeded to plead no contest, to the charges, and the superior court judge placed him on probation for three years.

Carney appealed the probation order to the California Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial judge should have declared the search illegal and excluded the marijuana evidence. The appeals court disagreed with Carney, but the California Supreme Court agreed. California's highest court found the search to be illegal, because the primary use for mobile homes is "to provide the occupant with living quarters." Because it was Carney's home, the court declared, the officers should have obtained a warrant from a magistrate, or Carney's permission, before searching the mobile home.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988California v. Carney - Is It A Car Or A Home?, It Is A Car, It Is A Home