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Automobile Searches

Automobile Searches: Is The Fourth Amendment In Jeopardy?

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 in danger.

Critics assert that by giving the police the discretion to determine what is a reasonable search, the Court ignored established precedent governing Fourth Amendment cases. Justice ROBERT H. JACKSON wrote in Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10 (1948),

The point of the Fourth Amendment, which is often not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.

According to Justice Stevens, the majority in Acevedo rejected this precedent without justification.

Justice ANTONIN SCALIA took a different approach. He suggested in his concurrence to Acevedo that the Fourth Amendment does not proscribe warrantless searches but rather prohibits unreasonable searches. Scalia argued that "the supposed 'general rule' that a warrant is always required does not appear to have any basis in the common law."

Lower federal courts and state courts of appeals have struggled with the question of whether Acevedo effectively expands law enforcement officers' ability to search automobiles without a warrant. For example, in United States v. Brooks, 838 F. Supp. 58 (W.D.N.Y. 1993), the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York upheld the conviction of an individual for distribution and conspiracy to distribute cocaine after officers conducted a warrantless search of the defendant's automobile. The officer, an undercover police agent, knew that a package contained cocaine, and the agent and other officers observed the defendant place the package in the front seat of the car. Noting Scalia's concurrence, the Court distinguished between a warrantless search and an unreasonable search. Because the officer knew that the package contained cocaine, the search of the automobile for the package was reasonable.

Some state courts have invalidated warrantless searches notwithstanding the Acevedo decision, though even these courts have struggled with the application of the decision. In Green v. Indiana, 647 N.E.2d 694 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995), officers conducted surveillance of the defendant at his home in Indiana based upon reliable tips. The officers knew that the defendant and another individual planned to deliver cocaine from Texas to Indiana after making a trip to Texas. The officers anticipated that the defendant would return in two days and reestablished surveillance at a state highway in Indiana. The officers did not obtain a SEARCH WARRANT for the automobile, though they had discussed the idea. The officers stopped Green's car upon his return, arrested him, and conducted a warrantless search of his automobile. The officers discovered the cocaine during their search. The court held that though the officers had probable cause to conduct the search, it was not impracticable to secure a warrant, relying in part on the Acevedo decision, the court held that though the officer had probable cause to conduct the search, it would not have been impracticable for them to secure a warrant, thus their failure to do so rendered the search illegal.


Dressler, Joshua. 2002. Understanding Criminal Procedure. Newark, N.J.: LexisNexis.

Gottlieb, Henry. 2002. "N.J. Joins Minority of States that Ban Freewheeling Consent Searches; Justices Invoke 'Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion' Standard." New Jersey Law Journal 167 (March 18).

Saltzburg, Stephen A., et al. 2003. Basic Criminal Procedure. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Approximation of laws to AutopsyAutomobile Searches - Warrantless Searches, Automobile Searches: Is The Fourth Amendment In Jeopardy?, Warrantless Seizures Of Automobile As Forfeitable Contraband