Vehicular Searches

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.


Vehicular Searches.—In the early days of the automobile, the Court created an exception for searches of vehicles, holding in Carroll v. United States281 that vehicles may be searched without warrants if the officer undertaking the search has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. The Court explained that the mobility of vehicles would allow them to be quickly moved from the jurisdiction if time were taken to obtain a warrant.282

Initially, the Court limited Carroll’s reach, holding impermissible the warrantless seizure of a parked automobile merely because it is movable, and indicating that vehicles may be stopped only while moving or reasonably contemporaneously with movement.283 The Court also ruled that the search must be reasonably contemporaneous with the stop, so that it was not permissible to remove the vehicle to the station house for a warrantless search at the convenience of the police.284

The Court next developed a reduced privacy rationale to supplement the mobility rationale, explaining that “the configuration, use, and regulation of automobiles often may dilute the reasonable expectation of privacy that exists with respect to differently situated property.”285 “One has a lesser expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle because its function is transportation and it seldom serves as one’s residence or as the repository of personal effects. . . . It travels public thoroughfares where both its occupants and its contents are in plain view.’”286 Although motor homes serve as residences and as repositories for personal effects, and their contents are often shielded from public view, the Court extended the automobile exception to them as well, holding that there is a diminished expectation of privacy in a mobile home parked in a parking lot and licensed for vehicular travel, hence “readily mobile.”287

The reduced expectancy concept has broadened police powers to conduct automobile searches without warrants, but they still must have probable cause to search a vehicle288 and they may not make random stops of vehicles on the roads, but instead must base stops of individual vehicles on probable cause or some “articulable and reasonable suspicion”289 of traffic or safety violation or some other criminal activity.290 If police stop a vehicle, then the vehicle’s passengers as well as its driver are deemed to have been seized from the moment the car comes to a halt, and the passengers as well as the driver may challenge the constitutionality of the stop.291 Likewise, a police officer may frisk (patdown for weapons) both the driver and any passengers whom he reasonably concludes “might be armed and presently dangerous.”292

By contrast, fixed-checkpoint stops in the absence of any individualized suspicion have been upheld for purposes of promoting highway safety293 or policing the international border,294 but not for more generalized law enforcement purposes.295 Once police have validly stopped a vehicle, they may also, based on articulable facts warranting a reasonable belief that weapons may be present, conduct a Terry-type protective search of those portions of the passenger compartment in which a weapon could be placed or hidden.296 And, in the absence of such reasonable suspicion as to weapons, police may seize contraband and suspicious items “in plain view” inside the passenger compartment.297

Although officers who have stopped a car to issue a routine traffic citation may conduct a Terry-type search, even including a pat-down of driver and passengers if there is reasonable suspicion that they are armed and dangerous, they may not conduct a full-blown search of the car298 unless they exercise their discretion to arrest the driver instead of issuing a citation.299 And once police have probable cause to believe there is contraband in a vehicle, they may remove the vehicle from the scene to the station house in order to conduct a search, without thereby being required to obtain a warrant.300 “[T]he justification to conduct such a warrantless search does not vanish once the car has been immobilized; nor does it depend upon a reviewing court’s assessment of the likelihood in each particular case that the car would have been driven away, or that its contents would have been tampered with, during the period required for the police to obtain a warrant.”301 Because of the lessened expectation of privacy, inventory searches of impounded automobiles are justifiable in order to protect public safety and the owner’s property, and any evidence of criminal activity discovered in the course of the inventories is admissible in court.302 The Justices were evenly divided, however, on the propriety of warrantless seizure of an arrestee’s automobile from a public parking lot several hours after his arrest, its transportation to a police impoundment lot, and the taking of tire casts and exterior paint scrapings.303

Police in undertaking a warrantless search of an automobile may not extend the search to the persons of the passengers therein304 unless there is a reasonable suspicion that the passengers are armed and dangerous, in which case a Terry patdown is permissible,305 or unless there is individualized suspicion of criminal activity by the passengers.306 But because passengers in an automobile have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the interior area of the car, a warrantless search of the glove compartment and the spaces under the seats, which turned up evidence implicating the passengers, invaded no Fourth Amendment interest of the passengers.307 Luggage and other closed containers found in automobiles may also be subjected to warrantless searches based on probable cause, regardless of whether the luggage or containers belong to the driver or to a passenger, and regardless of whether it is the driver or a passenger who is under suspicion.308 The same rule now applies whether the police have probable cause to search only the containers309 or whether they have probable cause to search the automobile for something capable of being held in the container.310

281 267 U.S. 132 (1925). Carroll was a Prohibition-era liquor case, whereas a great number of modern automobile cases involve drugs.

282 267 U.S. at 153. See also Husty v. United States, 282 U.S. 694 (1931); Scher v. United States, 305 U.S. 251 (1938); Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160 (1949). All of these cases involved contraband, but in Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970), the Court, without discussion, and over Justice Harlan’s dissent, id. at 55, 62, extended the rule to evidentiary searches.

283 Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 458–64 (1971). This portion of the opinion had the adherence of a plurality only, Justice Harlan concurring on other grounds, and there being four dissenters. Id. at 493, 504, 510, 523.

284 Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364 (1964); Dyke v. Taylor Implement Mfg. Co., 391 U.S. 216 (1968).

285 Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753, 761 (1979).

286 Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 590 (1974) (plurality opinion), quoted in United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 12 (1977). See also United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891, 896 (1975); United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 561 (1976); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 367–68 (1976); Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420, 424–25 (1981); United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 807 n.9 (1982).

287 California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 393 (1985) (leaving open the question of whether the automobile exception also applies to a “mobile” home being used as a residence and not “readily mobile”).

288 Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266 (1973) (roving patrols); United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891 (1975). Cf. Colorado v. Bannister, 449 U.S. 1 (1980). An automobile’s “ready mobility [is] an exigency sufficient to excuse failure to obtain a search warrant once probable cause is clear”; there is no need to find the presence of “unforeseen circumstances” or other additional exigency. Pennsylvania v. Labron, 527 U.S. 465 (1996). Accord, Maryland v. Dyson, 527 U.S. 465 (1999) (per curiam). Cf. Florida v. Harris, 568 U.S. ___, No. 11–817, slip op. (2013).

289 Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663 (1979) (discretionary random stops of motorists to check driver’s license and automobile registration constitute Fourth Amendment violation); United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975) (violation for roving patrols on lookout for illegal aliens to stop vehicles on highways near international borders when only ground for suspicion is that occupants appear to be of Mexican ancestry). But cf. United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266 (2002) (reasonable suspicion justified stop by border agents of vehicle traveling on unpaved backroads in an apparent effort to evade a border patrol checkpoint on the highway). In Prouse, the Court cautioned that it was not precluding the states from developing methods for spot checks, such as questioning all traffic at roadblocks, that involve less intrusion or that do not involve unconstrained exercise of discretion. 440 U.S. at 663.

290 An officer who observes a traffic violation may stop a vehicle even if his real motivation is to investigate for evidence of other crime. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). The existence of probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred establishes the constitutional reasonableness of traffic stops regardless of the actual motivation of the officers involved, and regardless of whether it is customary police practice to stop motorists for the violation observed. Similarly, pretextual arrest of a motorist who has committed a traffic offense is permissible. Arkansas v. Sullivan, 532 U.S. 769 (2001) (per curiam) (upholding search of the motorist’s car for a crime not related to the traffic offense).

291 Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 263 (2007).

292 Arizona v. Johnson, 129 S. Ct. 781, 786 (2009).

293 Michigan Dep’t of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990) (upholding a sobriety checkpoint at which all motorists are briefly stopped for preliminary questioning and observation for signs of intoxication).

294 United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976) (upholding border patrol checkpoint, over 60 miles from the border, for questioning designed to apprehend illegal aliens). See also United States v. Flores-Montano, 541 U.S. 149 (2004) (upholding a search at the border involving disassembly of a vehicle’s fuel tank).

295 City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000) (vehicle checkpoint set up for the “primary purpose [of] detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing” (here interdicting illegal narcotics) does not fall within the highway safety or border patrol exception to the individualized suspicion requirement, and hence violates the Fourth Amendment). Edmond was distinguished in Illinois v. Lidster, 540 U.S. 419 (2004), upholding use of a checkpoint to ask motorists for help in solving a recent hit-and-run accident that had resulted in death. The public interest in solving the crime was deemed “grave,” while the interference with personal liberty was deemed minimal.

296 Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1049 (1983) (holding that contraband found in the course of such a search is admissible).

297 Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730 (1983). Similarly, because there is no reasonable privacy interest in the vehicle identification number, required by law to be placed on the dashboard so as to be visible through the windshield, police may reach into the passenger compartment to remove items obscuring the number and may seize items in plain view while doing so. New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986). Because there also is no legitimate privacy interest in possessing contraband, and because properly conducted canine sniffs are “generally likely[] to reveal only the presence of contraband,” police may conduct a canine sniff around the perimeter of a vehicle stopped for a traffic offense so long as the stop is not prolonged beyond the time needed to process the traffic violation. Compare Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005) (a canine sniff around the perimeter of a car following a routine traffic stop does not offend the Fourth Amendment if the duration of the stop is justified by the traffic offense) with Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. ___, No. 13–9972, slip op. at 3, 5–6 (2015) (finding that the stop in question had been prolonged for seven to eight minutes beyond the time needed to resolve the traffic offense in order to conduct a canine sniff).

298 Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113 (1998) (invalidating an Iowa statute permitting a full-blown search incident to a traffic citation).

299 See Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001) (police officers, in their discretion, may arrest a motorist for a minor traffic offense rather than issuing a citation); New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) (officers who arrest an occupant of a vehicle may make a contemporaneous search of the entire passenger compartment, including closed containers); Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004) (the Belton rule applies regardless of whether the arrestee exited the car at the officer’s direction, or whether he did so prior to confrontation); Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. ___, No. 07–542 (U.S. Apr. 21 (2009), slip op. at 18 (the Belton rule applies “only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest”); Arkansas v. Sullivan, 532 U.S. 769 (2001) (pretextual arrest of motorist who has committed a traffic offense is permissible even if purpose is to search vehicle for evidence of other crime).

300 Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. 259 (1982). The same rule applies if it is the vehicle itself that is forfeitable contraband; police, acting without a warrant, may seize the vehicle from a public place. Florida v. White, 526 U.S. 559 (1999).

301 Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. at 261. See also Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970); Texas v. White, 423 U.S. 67 (1975); United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 807 n.9 (1982).

302 Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976). See also Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. 58 (1967); United States v. Harris, 390 U.S. 234 (1968). Police, in conducting an inventory search of a vehicle, may open closed containers in order to inventory contents. Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987).

303 Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583 (1974). Justice Powell concurred on other grounds.

304 United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581 (1948);Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 94–96 (1979).

305 Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 118 (1998).

306 Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366 (2003) (probable cause to arrest passengers based on officers finding $783 in glove compartment and cocaine hidden beneath back seat armrest, and on driver and passengers all denying ownership of the cocaine).

307 Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 (1978).

308 Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 307 (1999) (“police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search”).

309 California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991) (overruling Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753 (1979).

310 United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982). A Ross search of a container found in an automobile need not occur soon after its seizure. United States v. Johns, 469 U.S. 478 (1985) (three-day time lapse). See also Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248 (1991) (consent to search automobile for drugs constitutes consent to open containers within the car that might contain drugs).