by David Daggett

This month’s blog is a brief overview of automobile and personal searches from Carroll to Belton up through Arizona v. Gant. It is designed to provide a quick and easy refresher of a few of the seminal rulings impacting automobile (and other) search and seizure law.

There are essentially two reasons for the distinction between searches of automobiles and searches of other private property. First, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, the inherent mobility of automobiles often makes it impracticable to obtain a warrant for that automobile. Secondly, the nature, use and regulation of automobiles often reduces the reasonable expectation of privacy that exists with respect to other types of property. What follows is a brief analysis of some of the more important cases related to Fourth Amendment law, automobiles and otherwise.

1925: Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132

Carroll v United States is one of the most widely cited Supreme Court cases, having been referenced in over 6,600 opinions. It is somewhat amazing that Carroll has withstood the test of time (and legal scrutiny), especially considering the period in our country’s history when Carroll was decided and how the social mores and political climate of the times fostered the Court’s ruling.

Carroll was decided amidst the heart of prohibition – a period known as the “Roaring 20’s”: post-WWI euphoria, jazz music, gangsters, art deco, women’s right to vote, the Charleston. The 18th Amendment, which went into effect on January 17, 1920, implemented a nationwide ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages (What were they thinking!). While it was illegal to manufacture, sell or import alcohol, it wasn’t illegal to consume it and Canada, Mexico and Caribbean countries continued to manufacture and smuggle alcohol into the U.S. With only 1,520 federal prohibition agents (“Revenuers”) tasked with enforcing the laws – Elliott Ness being one of them – speakeasies began springing up all over the country. The Detroit River, which formed part of the border between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario was a key entry point for bootlegged spirits as it provided close access to Detroit and Chicago.

In the fall of 1921, federal prohibition agents obtained intel that George Carroll and John Kiro were “bootleggers”, frequently running hootch between Grand Rapids and Detroit in an Oldsmobile Roadster. Agent Fred Cronenwelt, the Chief Revenuer, first met Carroll and Kiro on September 29, 1921, in an apartment leased by a Mr. Scully, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Agent Cronenwelt was working undercover and was introduced to them under a fictitious name, and indicated that he wanted to buy three cases of whisky, with an agreed upon price of about $135 per case. Carroll and Kiro told the agents they had to drive to the east end of Grand Rapids in order to get the liquor and that they’d be back in less than an hour. Carroll and Kiro left and returned shortly thereafter, saying they couldn’t get the booze that night, but they would deliver it the next day. They failed to do so the next day or at any time. It is unknown if they absconded with Uncle Sam’s cash or if they were to be paid C.O.D. It was noted by the agent that when the alleged bootleggers came to Mr. Scully’s apartment they were driving an Oldsmobile Roadster.

Carroll and Kiro weren’t seen again until they were spotted by Agent Cronenwelt driving the Roadster about a week later. The agent had no interaction with them, though he did make note of the color of the vehicle and license number as they drove by. On December 15, 1921, two and a half months after the aborted transaction of September 29, Agent Cronenwelt and his partner again unexpectedly encountered Carroll and Kiro driving that same roadster on the same route between Grand Rapids and Detroit. The officers gave pursuit, stopped the roadster on the highway, and directed Carroll and Kiro to exit the vehicle. No contraband was visible in the front seat of the Oldsmobile and the rear portion of the roadster was closed. One of the agents raised the rumble seat but found no liquor. He raised the seat cushion and again found nothing. The officer then reached in and touched the back of the rumble seat and noticed that it was “harder than upholstery ordinarily is in those backs.” He tore open the seat cushion and discovered 68 bottles of gin and whiskey concealed inside. No warrant had been obtained for the search.

Carroll and Kiro were convicted of transporting intoxicating liquor in violation of the National Prohibition Act. On review of those convictions, the Supreme Court ruled that the warrantless search of the roadster was reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. In an extensive opinion written by Chief Justice Taft, the Court held:

On reason and authority the true rule is that if the search and seizure without a warrant are made upon probable cause, that is, upon a belief, reasonably arising* out of circumstances known to the seizing officer, that an automobile or other vehicle contains that which by law is subject to seizure and destruction, the search and seizure are valid. The Fourth Amendment is to be construed in the light of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when it was adopted, and in a manner which will conserve public interests as well as the interests and rights of individual citizens.” Id., at 149.

* It is interesting to note another example of the Court intermingling probable cause with reasonable belief/suspicion. See February blog.

In explaining the basis for this ruling, and stressing the necessity of probable cause, the Court noted that historically warrantless searches of vessels, wagons, and carriages — as opposed to fixed premises such as a home or other building — had been considered reasonable by Congress:

Thus contemporaneously with the adoption of the Fourth Amendment we find in the first Congress, and in the following Second and Fourth Congresses, a difference made as to the necessity for a search warrant between goods subject to forfeiture, when concealed in a dwelling house or similar place, and like goods in course of transportation and concealed in a movable vessel where they readily could be put out of reach of a search warrant.” Id., at 152

The Court cited Section 26, Title II, of the National Prohibition Act, which provided that when an officer “shall discover any person in the act” of transporting intoxicating liquor in any automobile, or other vehicle, in violation of the law, it shall be the agent’s duty to seize the liquor and take possession of the vehicle and arrest the person in charge of it.

Chief Justice Taft further clarified his justification for the warrantless search of the automobile by stressing the need for probable cause:

“Having thus established that contraband goods concealed and illegally transported in an automobile or other vehicle may be searched for without a warrant, we come now to consider under what circumstances such search may be made. It would be intolerable and unreasonable if a prohibition agent were authorized to stop every automobile on the chance of finding liquor and thus subject all persons lawfully using the highways to the inconvenience and indignity of such a search. Travelers may be so stopped in crossing an international boundary because of national self-protection reasonably requiring one entering the country to identify himself as entitled to come in, and his belongings as effects which may be lawfully brought in. But those lawfully within the country, entitled to use the public highways, have a right to free passage without interruption or search unless there is known to a competent official authorized to search, probable cause (emphasis added) for believing that their vehicles are carrying contraband or illegal merchandise.” Id., at 153-154.

Moreover, the probable-cause determination must be based on objective facts that could justify the issuance of a warrant by a magistrate and not merely on the subjective good faith of the police officers. “‘

[As] we have seen, good faith is not enough to constitute probable cause. That faith must be grounded on facts within knowledge of the [officer], which in the judgment of the court would make his faith reasonable.'” Id., at 161-162


The Court ultimately held, “The true rule is that if a search and seizure without a warrant are made upon probable cause, that is, upon a belief, reasonably arising out of circumstances known to the seizing officer, that an automobile or other vehicle contains that which by law is subject to seizure and destruction, the search and seizure are valid. U.S. Const. amend. IV is to be construed in the light of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when it was adopted, and in a manner which will conserve public interests as well as the interests and rights of individual citizens.” Id., at 149

Chief Justice Taft cited the legislative history of the National Prohibition Act, which made it a misdemeanor for any officer of the United States to search a private dwelling without a search warrant or to search any other building or property without a search warrant, maliciously and without reasonable cause, but that it showed clearly the intent of Congress to make a distinction as to the necessity for a search warrant in the searching of private dwellings and in the searching of automobiles or other road vehicles, in the enforcement of the Prohibition Act.

According to the dissent, written by Justice McReynolds, the facts known by the officers who arrested the defendants were wholly insufficient to create a reasonable belief that they were transporting liquor contrary to law. Justice McReynolds believed the negotiations concerning the three cases of whisky on September 29th was the only circumstance that would have subjected Carroll and Kiro to any reasonable suspicion. No whisky was delivered, and it was not even certain that Carroll or Kiro ever intended to deliver any. The arrest came two and a half months after the original negotiation. Every act observed by the agents between September 29 and December 15 could certainly have been consistent with complete innocence. As the dissent opined:

“Has it come about that merely because a man once agreed to deliver whisky, but did not, he may be arrested whenever thereafter he ventures to drive an automobile on the road to Detroit? The facts known when the arrest occurred were wholly insufficient to engender reasonable belief that [defendants] were committing a misdemeanor, and the legality of the arrest cannot be supported by facts ascertained through the search which followed.” Id., at 175

It is probably safe to say that the decision rendered in Carroll was, like most cases, a product of the times. While it is hard to imagine any court today ruling that a conversation between the defendants and federal agents on September 29th would serve as probable cause for a warrantless search some two and ½ months later when the suspects were engaged in seemingly innocuous, and generally law-abiding, activity, it is has not been overturned and has, in fact, been expanded upon.

1968: Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1

While not an automobile search case, Terry v. Ohio has obvious relevance to warrantless search and seizure law. In Terry, a Cleveland gumshoe by the name of McFadden (picture Joe Friday, not Starsky or Hutch) was working a downtown beat which he had been patrolling for many years, when he observed two strangers (Terry and another man, Chilton) on a street corner. He saw them walking back and forth along an identical route, pausing to stare in the same store window. They did this over 20 times. Each completion of the route was followed by the two of them briefly conferring with one another on a corner. At one of those conferences they were joined by a third man (Katz) who quickly left. Suspecting the two men of “casing the joint, a stick-up,” McFadden followed them and saw them rejoin Katz a couple of blocks away in front of a store. The officer approached the three, identified himself as an officer and asked their names. The men “mumbled something,” (“Cheeze it – it’s the Fuzz!”), whereupon McFadden patted down Terry’s outside clothing and felt what appeared to be a pistol in his overcoat pocket. The officer ordered the three men into the store, removed Terry’s overcoat, took out the revolver, and ordered the three to assume the position. He patted down the outer clothing of Chilton and Katz and seized a revolver from Chilton’s outside overcoat pocket. He did not put his hands under the outer garments of Katz (since he discovered nothing in his pat-down which might have been a weapon), or under Terry’s or Chilton’s outer garments until he felt the guns. The three were then taken to the police station, with Terry and Chilton being charged with carrying concealed weapons.

At trial, the defense moved to suppress the weapons. Though the trial court rejected the prosecution argument that the guns had been seized during a search incident to a lawful arrest, the court denied the motion to suppress and admitted the weapons into evidence on the ground that the officer had cause to believe that the petitioner and Chilton were acting suspiciously, that their interrogation was warranted, and that the officer, for his own protection, had the right to pat down their outer clothing, having reasonable cause to believe that they might be armed. The trial court distinguished between an “investigatory stop” and an arrest, and between a “frisk” of the outer clothing for weapons and a full-blown search for evidence of a crime. Terry and Chilton were found guilty, a finding affirmed by an intermediate appellate court. The Ohio Supreme Court dismissed the appeal on the ground that “no substantial constitutional question” was involved.

Terry sought review of his conviction for carrying a concealed weapon, contending that the weapon seized from him was obtained through an illegal search and that the trial court improperly denied his motion to suppress. On certiorari the Supreme Court affirmed Terry’s conviction. The court ruled that despite the fact that the arresting police officer lacked probable cause to make an arrest at the time of the “stop and frisk,” the warrantless intrusion upon the petitioner that produced the weapon at issue met constitutional muster as the officer had a reasonable suspicion, based upon his observations and experience, that Terry and his cohorts were about to commit a daytime robbery, and that the officer’s belief that Terry was presently armed, dangerous, and posed a threat to him and to others justified both the officer’s “stop” as well as his subsequent “frisk,” or pat-down, of Terry’s person and overcoat. Additionally, the Supreme Court ruled that the search of the outer clothing of Terry and his companions was properly limited in time and scope in order for him to determine the presence of weapons and to neutralize the danger posed.

1969: Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 – “Search Incident to Arrest/’Wingspan’”

Chimel is another case that did not involve an automobile, but is nevertheless significant in any historical analysis. Late in the afternoon of September 13, 1965, three police officers arrived at the Santa Ana, California home of Ted Chimel (Petitioner), armed with a warrant authorizing his arrest for the burglary of a coin shop. The officers knocked on the door, identified themselves to Chimel’s wife, and asked if they could come inside. She admitted them into the house, where they waited 10 or 15 minutes until Mr. Chimel returned home from work. When Chimel entered the house, one of the officers handed him the arrest warrant and asked for permission to “look around.” The petitioner objected, but was advised that “on the basis of the lawful arrest,” the officers would nonetheless conduct a search. Obviously, no search warrant had been issued.

Accompanied by Chimel’s wife, the officers then looked through the entire three-bedroom house, including the attic, the garage, and a small workshop. In some rooms the search was relatively cursory. In the master bedroom and sewing room, however, the officers directed Mrs. Chimel to open drawers and “to physically move contents of the drawers from side to side so that they might view any items that would have come from the burglary.” After completing the search, they seized numerous items — primarily coins, but also several medals, tokens, and a few other assorted bric-a-brac. The entire search took between 45 minutes and an hour.

The California courts upheld the arrest of the petitioner and search of his house, the Supreme Court granted cert to decide the issue of whether the warrantless search of the petitioner’s entire house could be constitutionally justified as incident to that arrest.

The SCOTUS gave a brief history of the approval of warrantless searches incident to lawful arrest, indicating that they first seemed to have been mentioned (in dictum) by the Court in Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914), in which the Court stated:

“What then is the present case? Before answering that inquiry specifically, it may be well by a process of exclusion to state what it is not. It is not an assertion of the right on the part of the Government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested to discover and seize the fruits or evidences of crime.” Id., at 392.

That statement made no reference to any right to search the “place” where an arrest occurs, but was limited to a right to search the “person.” Just eleven years later, Carroll v. U.S. expanded the above statement from Weeks to include “place”:

When a man is legally arrested for an offense, whatever is found upon his person or in his control which it is unlawful for him to have and which may be used to prove the offense, may be seized and held as evidence in the prosecution…The right without a search warrant contemporaneously to search persons lawfully arrested while committing a crime and to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime as its fruits or as the means by which it was committed, as well as weapons and other things to effect an escape from custody, is not to be doubted. Id., at 158.

The Chimel court, after further analysis, went on to clarify and limit the extent of the “search incident to arrest”:

A similar analysis underlies the “search incident to arrest” principle, and marks its proper extent. When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer’s safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. A gun on a table or in a drawer in front of one who is arrested can be as dangerous to the arresting officer as one concealed in the clothing of the person arrested. There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area “within his immediate control” — construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence. There is no comparable justification, however, for routinely searching any room other than that in which an arrest occurs — or, for that matter, for searching through all the desk drawers or other closed or concealed areas in that room itself. Such searches, in the absence of well-recognized exceptions, may be made only under the authority of a search warrant. The “adherence to judicial processes” mandated by the Fourth Amendment requires no less. Id., at 763,764

1973: United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218
Search Incident to Arrest vs. Terry “pat down”

The defendant (Robinson) was pulled over by a Washington D. C. police officer. The officer had probable cause to arrest the defendant for driving after his license had been revoked. The officer then searched the defendant and felt an object under his coat. The officer reached into the coat and pulled out a cigarette package. The officer felt there was something in the package that was not cigarettes. The officer opened the package and found what was later determined to be heroin. The officer did not indicate any subjective fear of the defendant; did not suspect that the defendant was armed; and was not specifically looking for weapons or anything else in the search.

The District Court upheld the legality of the search, but the Appellate Court reversed, holding that the heroin had been obtained as the result of a search violative of the Fourth Amendment. They determined that, even though the defendant had been lawfully placed in custodial arrest, the search could not have produced any further evidence of the crime of driving on a revoked license, and thus the search should have been limited to a search of the defendant’s outer clothing to discover any weapons, as in the case of a Terry stop-and-frisk weapons pat down incident to an investigative stop based on less than probable cause to arrest. In its decision, the Court of Appeals determined that even after a police officer lawfully places a suspect under arrest for the purpose of taking him into custody, he may not ordinarily proceed to fully search the prisoner. He must, instead, conduct a limited frisk of the outer clothing and remove such weapons that he may, as a result of that limited frisk, reasonably believe and ascertain that the suspect has in his possession. While recognizing that Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), dealt with a permissible “frisk” incident to an investigative stop based on less than probable cause to arrest, the Court of Appeals felt that the principles of that case should be carried over to this probable-cause arrest for driving while one’s license is revoked. Since there would be no further evidence of such a crime to be obtained in a search of the arrestee, the court held that only a search for weapons could be justified.

The Supreme Court differentiated between the two types of intrusions: the Terry “pat down” versus a search incident to arrest, and determined that:

The former, although justified in part by the acknowledged necessity to protect the arresting officer from assault with a concealed weapon, is also justified on other grounds, and can therefore involve a relatively extensive exploration of the person. A search for weapons in the absence of probable cause to arrest, however, must, like any other search, be strictly circumscribed by the exigencies which justify its initiation. Thus it must be limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons which might be used to harm the officer or others nearby, and may realistically be characterized as something less than a ‘full’ search, even though it remains a serious intrusion.

An arrest is a wholly different kind of intrusion upon individual freedom from a limited search for weapons, and the interests each is designed to serve are likewise quite different. An arrest is the initial stage of a criminal prosecution. It is intended to vindicate society’s interest in having its laws obeyed, and it is inevitably accompanied by future interference with the individual’s freedom of movement, whether or not trial or conviction ultimately follows. The protective search for weapons, on the other hand, constitutes a brief, though far from inconsiderable, intrusion upon the sanctity of the person.”

Terry, therefore, affords no basis to carry over to a probable-cause arrest the limitations this Court placed on a stop-and-frisk search permissible without probable cause. Id., at 228

Terry v. Ohio did not involve an arrest for probable cause, and it made quite clear that the “protective frisk” for weapons which it approved might be conducted without probable cause. This Court’s opinion explicitly recognized that there is a “distinction in purpose, character, and extent between a search incident to an arrest and a limited search for weapons.” Id., at 228

The Supremes ultimately reversed and upheld the search. In an opinion by Judge Rehnquist, it was held that:

(1) after a police officer lawfully placed a suspect under arrest for the purpose of taking him into custody, even where the arrest was for a traffic violation, the officer could proceed to fully search the prisoner, and was not limited by standards governing a protective stop-and-frisk search for weapons incident to only an investigative stop of a person;

(2) the authority to search the person incident to a lawful custodial arrest, while based upon the need to disarm and to discover evidence, did not depend on what a court might later decide was the possibility in a particular arrest situation that weapons or evidence would in fact be found upon the person;

(3) in the case of a lawful custodial arrest, a full search of the person was not only an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, but was also a “reasonable” search under that Amendment, since the fact of the lawful arrest established the authority to search; and

(4) the Fourth Amendment was not violated by the search involved in the case at bar, notwithstanding that the officer did not suspect that the defendant was armed, and notwithstanding that no further evidence of the crime of driving while one’s permit was revoked could have been obtained in the search.

1981: New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454
Vehicle Search Incident to Arrest

On April 9, 1978, Trooper Douglas Nicot of the New York State Police was driving an unmarked car on the New York Thruway and was passed by another automobile traveling at an excessive rate of speed. Nicot gave chase, caught up with the speeding vehicle, and pulled the driver over. There were four men in the car, one of whom was Roger Belton. The trooper asked to see the driver’s license and automobile registration, and determined that none of the men owned the vehicle or was related to its owner. Meanwhile, the trooper smelled the odor of burnt marihuana coming from inside the vehicle and saw on the floor of the car an envelope marked “Supergold,” which he associated with marihuana. He then directed the men out of the car, and placed them under arrest for possession of marihuana. He patted down each of the men and separated them. He then retrieved the envelope marked “Supergold” and found that it did, indeed, contain marihuana. Trooper Nicot then searched each of the suspects. He then searched the passenger compartment of the car and on the back seat found a black leather jacket belonging to Belton. He unzipped one of the pockets of the jacket and discovered cocaine.

Belton was subsequently indicted for possession of a controlled substance. In the trial court he moved that the cocaine the trooper had seized from the jacket pocket be suppressed. The court denied the motion and Belton pled guilty to a lesser included offense, but preserved his claim that the cocaine had been seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the search and seizure, reasoning that “[once] defendant was validly arrested for possession of marihuana, the officer was justified in searching the immediate area for other contraband.” 416 N. Y. S. 2d 922, 925.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “[a] warrantless search of the zippered pockets of an inaccessible jacket may not be upheld as a search incident to a lawful arrest where there is no longer any danger that the arrestee or a confederate might gain access to the article.” 407 N. E. 2d 420, 421. The SCOTUS granted certiorari to consider the constitutionally permissible extent of a search in circumstances such as these.

The Supremes held that when a law enforcement officer has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant/s of an automobile, he may, contemporaneously with that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile. The Court further held that the police may also examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment, using the rationale that if the passenger compartment is within reach of the arrestee, so also are the containers. Finally, the Court held that such a container may be searched whether it is open or closed, since the justification for the search is not that the arrestee has no privacy interest in the container, but that the lawful custodial arrest justifies the infringement of any privacy interest the arrestee may have.

The Court determined that Belton was the subject of a lawful custodial arrest on the charge of possessing marihuana. The search of Belton’s jacket followed immediately upon that arrest. The jacket was located inside the passenger compartment of the car in which Belton had been a passenger just before he was arrested. The jacket was therefore within the area which the Court concluded was “within the arrestee’s immediate control” as determined by Chimel. The search of the jacket, therefore, was a search incident to a lawful custodial arrest, and did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

1991: California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565

In Acevedo, the Supreme Court tried to distinguish between probable cause to search a vehicle (Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982)) and probable cause to search a package found in that vehicle (United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, (1977), Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753 (1979)). In a nutshell, the Carroll – Ross line of cases stood for the proposition that where police officers have probable cause to search an entire vehicle, they may conduct a warrantless search of every part of that vehicle and its contents, including all containers and packages that may conceal the object of their search. Ross distinguished the Carroll doctrine from the separate rule that governed the search of closed containers. The Supreme Court had announced this separate rule, unique to luggage and other closed packages, bags, and containers in the Chadwick – Sanders line of cases, which stood for the proposition that if police had probable cause to believe that a specific container held the object of their search, they were required to obtain a warrant before searching that container. The Court deemed this a distinction without a difference and addressed that dichotomy in Acevedo.

On October 28, 1987, Officer Coleman of the Santa Ana, Cal., Police Department received a telephone call from a DEA agent in Hawaii. The agent informed Coleman that he had seized a package containing marijuana which was to have been delivered to the Federal Express Office in Santa Ana and which was addressed to J. R. Daza at 805 West Stevens Avenue in Santa Ana. The agent arranged to send the package to Officer Coleman and Coleman was to then take the package to the Federal Express office and arrest the person who arrived to claim it.

Officer Coleman received the package the next day (10/28) and took it to the Fed Ex office. At about 10:30 a.m. on October 30, a man, who identified himself as Jamie Daza, arrived to claim the package. He picked it up, drove to his apartment on West Stevens and carried the package into the apartment.

At 11:45 a.m., officers observed Daza leave the apartment and drop the box and paper that had contained the marijuana into a trash bin. At about 12:05 p.m., the officers saw Richard St. George leave the apartment carrying a blue knapsack which appeared to be half full. The officers stopped him as he was driving off, searched the knapsack, and found 1 1/2 pounds of marijuana.

At 12:30 p.m., Charles Steven Acevedo arrived. He entered Daza’s apartment, stayed for about 10 minutes, and reappeared carrying a brown paper bag that looked full. The officers noticed that the bag was the size of one of the wrapped marijuana packages sent from Hawaii. Acevedo walked to a silver Honda in the parking lot. He placed the bag in the trunk of the car and started to drive away. Officers in a marked police car stopped him, opened the trunk and the bag, and found marijuana.

Acevedo was charged in state court with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. He moved to suppress the marijuana found in the car. The motion was denied. He then pleaded guilty but appealed the denial of the suppression motion.

The Supreme Court held that the interpretation of the Carroll doctrine as set forth in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982) applied to all searches of containers found in an automobile, so long as the search was supported by probable cause.

The Court in Ross put it this way:

“The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile . . . is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted. Rather, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.” 456 U.S. at 824.

However, the Ross Court went on to note: “Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab.” Ibid.

Acevedo reaffirmed that principle. The police had probable cause to believe that the paper bag was in the automobile’s trunk and that it contained marijuana. That probable cause allowed for a warrantless search of the paper bag. However, the Court also determined that as the facts in the record revealed that the police did not have probable cause to believe that contraband was hidden in any other part of the automobile, a search of the entire vehicle would have been without probable cause and therefore, unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Writer’s Note: Of course, the officers could have then searched the rest of the vehicle as search incident to arrest under Belton, but I digress.

In conclusion, the Court stated: “Until today, this Court has drawn a curious line between the search of an automobile that coincidentally turns up a container and the search of a container that coincidentally turns up in an automobile. The protections of the Fourth Amendment must not turn on such coincidences. We therefore interpret Carroll as providing one rule to govern all 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. 500 U.S. at 580

2009: Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332

In the case of Arizona v Gant, Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. He was subsequently handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car. Police officers then searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.

The Arizona Supreme Court held that because Gant could not have accessed his car to retrieve weapons or evidence at the time of the search, the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, as defined in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1960), and applied to vehicle searches in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), did not justify the search of Gant’s vehicle.

Taking cert, the United States’ Supreme Court unfortunately agreed with the conclusion of the Arizona Appellate Court, holding that, under Chimel, police may search incident to arrest only the space within an arrestee’s “‘immediate control,'” meaning “the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” 395 U.S., at 763.

The Court determined that the safety and evidentiary justifications behind Chimel’s reaching-distance rule determine Belton’s scope. Accordingly, the Supremes held in Gant that Belton does not authorize a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle. It is imperative to note, however, that Gant added an independent exception for a warrantless search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment “when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.’” Gant at 344. The Supremes just didn’t think that in this case evidence of the offense of driving suspended would be located in the vehicle, though certainly evidence of letters from the MVA or unpaid traffic citations could conceivably have been found. In Maryland, that would help satisfy the “knowledge” element under McCallum. That wasn’t argued, apparently.

The Gant opinion stated that in many situations, as when a recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains relevant evidence. But in other situations, such as those in Belton and Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004), (See J. Scalia’s concurring opinion) the offense of arrest will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee’s vehicle and any containers therein if there is a likelihood that evidence of the crime will be found. As Justice Scalia wrote in Thornton, “If Belton searches are justifiable, it is not because the arrestee might grab a weapon or evidentiary item from his car, but simply because the car might contain evidence relevant to the crime for which he was arrested.” Id at 630.

It is clear that a search of the passenger compartment of the vehicle (and all containers therein) would certainly be authorized following an arrest for driving while impaired by drugs or C.D.S., as it is certainly reasonable to believe that evidence of that offense might be found in the vehicle, and thus, admissible under Belton (and Gant.)


There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration before conducting a vehicle search: Was the initial stop valid – that is, based upon reasonable articulable suspicion or probable cause? If the basis for the stop was a citizen complaint, did it come from an anonymous source, a reliable informant or an identified citizen? (See Navarette). Is there probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle? Is the search based upon probable cause under Carroll or search incident to arrest under Belton and Gant? If the driver is arrested, is it reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest will be found in the vehicle? Do the police have the right to search the entire vehicle or merely the passenger compartment and all containers located therein? Do the police have the right to pat down the driver and occupants under a Terry/officer safety rationale? If the search is based upon reasonable articulable suspicion, are there exigent circumstances that would require an immediate search absent a warrant? Consent? Does your department have a policy regarding inventory searches?

As you can see, there are a myriad of issues and circumstances that can come into play when contemplating a warrantless search of an automobile. As such, always keep in mind that if you have probable cause to believe the search may bear valuable fruit, a warrant is usually the wiser (and safer) course of action.

As always, please consult with your local State’s Attorneys’ Office with any specific questions regarding issues raised in this article.

David Daggett is a Transportation Safety Resource Prosecutor with the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association. The Maryland TSRP blogs are posted with the permission of the author.