2 minute read

California v. Carney

It Is A Home

Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall, dissented. Stevens observed that the Court had two recent, applicable precedents that tugged it in different directions: Payton v. New York (1980) and United States v. Ross (1982). In Payton, the Court decided that searches of the home generally must be accompanied by a search warrant. In Ross, the Court affirmed the right of police to conduct warrantless searches of vehicles, provided the search was supported by probable cause. By opting to use the Ross case as its most relevant precedent, Stevens wrote, the Court had "abandoned the limits on the [automobile] exception imposed by prior cases."

Not only was the case wrongly decided, Stevens insisted, it was not worthy of the Court's review. Stevens decried the Court's increased interest in Fourth Amendment cases. "Unless an order suppressing evidence is clearly correct," Stevens lamented, "a petition for certiorari is likely to garner the four votes required for a grant of plenary review." In the face of an ever-expanding Court docket, the Court had decided to accept the case to establish "a rule for searching motor homes that is to be followed by the entire Nation" when it could have let stand a single state high court decision.

Stevens opened the dissent's analysis by stating the general rule on search warrants: unless the circumstances fit an exception recognized by the Court, police must obtain a search warrant before conducting a search. On the discrete topic of the expectation of privacy in mobile motor homes, Stevens said that the owners of motor homes have "a substantial and legitimate expectation of privacy when they dwell within."

Having established an expectation of privacy, Stevens examined the facts of the case and concluded that the circumstances did not justify the failure of the police to secure a search warrant. The motor home was parked in a lot with its windows covered by curtains, and when the agents entered the motor home the window blinds were drawn, making it unlikely that the occupant was preparing to drive it away. Moreover, it was parked in a parking lot just a few blocks away from a courthouse "where dozens of magistrates were available to entertain a warrant application." All of these factors, combined with a lack of exigent circumstances, left Stevens wondering "why [the agents] eschewed the safe harbor of a warrant."

Stevens rejected the argument that the bare mobility of a motorized vehicle excuses a warrantless search that is supported by probable cause. Citing United States v. Chadwick (1977), Stevens argued that the simple mobility of a vehicle is not sufficient justification for a warrantless search. In Chadwick, the Court held that the warrantless search of luggage was illegal. "If `inherent mobility' does not justify warrantless searches," Stevens declared, "it cannot rationally provide a sufficient justification for the search of a person's dwelling place."

Stevens closed the dissenting opinion by analyzing the characteristics of the mobile home. The motor home "was designed to accommodate a breadth of ordinary living," and "the mode of construction should have indicated to the officers that it was a vehicle containing mobile living quarters." Stevens refused to believe that law enforcement officers would not be able to determine whether a particular vehicle contained living quarters. "Although it may not be a castle," Stevens lectured,

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 a majestic mansion, but the highest and most legitimate expectations of privacy associated with these temporal abodes should command the respect of this Court.

Additional topics

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