United States v. Ross

Supreme Court of the United States, 1982.

456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572.

 

[In Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), the Supreme Court upheld a warrantless search of a motor vehicle that was harboring contraband. Thus began the so-called automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. In the instant case, the Court considers the scope of the automobile exception.]

 

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

      . . . In this case, we consider the extent to which police officers—who have legitimately stopped an automobile and who have probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it—may conduct a probing search of compartments and containers within the vehicle whose contents are not in plain view. We hold that they may conduct a search of the vehicle that is as thorough as a magistrate could authorize in a warrant “particularly describing the place to be searched.”

 

      In the evening of November 27, 1978, an informant who had previously proved to be reliable telephoned Detective Marcum of the District of Columbia Police Department and told him that an individual known as “Bandit” was selling narcotics kept in the trunk of a car parked at 439 Ridge Street. The informant stated that he had just observed “Bandit” complete a sale and that “Bandit” had told him that additional narcotics were in the trunk. The informant gave Marcum a detailed description of “Bandit” and stated that the car was a “purplish maroon” Chevrolet Malibu with District of Columbia license plates.

 

      Accompanied by Detective Cassidy and Sergeant Gonzales, Marcum immediately drove to the area and found a maroon Malibu parked in front of 439 Ridge Street. . . . They pulled alongside the Malibu, noticed that the driver matched the informant’s description, and stopped the car. Marcum and Cassidy told the driver—later identified as Albert Ross, the respondent in this action—to get out of the vehicle. While they searched Ross, Sergeant Gonzales discovered a bullet on the car’s front seat. He searched the interior of the car and found a pistol in the glove compartment. Ross then was arrested and handcuffed. Detective Cassidy took Ross’ keys and opened the trunk, where he found a closed brown paper bag. He opened the bag and discovered a number of glassine bags containing a white powder. Cassidy replaced the bag, closed the trunk, and drove the car to headquarters.

 

      At the police station Cassidy thoroughly searched the car. In addition to the “lunch-type” brown paper bag, Cassidy found in the trunk a zippered red leather pouch. He unzipped the pouch and discovered $3,200 in cash. The police laboratory later determined that the powder in the bag was heroin. No warrant was obtained.

 

      Ross was charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute. . . . Prior to trial, he moved to suppress the heroin found in the paper bag and the currency found in the leather pouch. After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied the motion to suppress. The heroin and currency were introduced in evidence at trial and Ross was convicted. . . .

 

      [On appeal, Ross’ conviction was reversed on the grounds that the warrantless search of the containers in the trunk was unreasonable.]

 

      . . . [T]he exception to the warrant requirement established in Carroll [v. United States (1925)]—the scope of which we consider in this case—applied only to searches of vehicles that are supported by probable cause. In this class of cases, a search is not unreasonable if based on facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant, even though a warrant has not actually been obtained.

 

      The rationale justifying a warrantless search of an automobile that is believed to be transporting contraband arguably applies with equal force to any movable container that is believed to be carrying an illicit substance. . . .

 

      . . . [T]he decision in Carroll was based on the Court’s appraisal of practical considerations viewed in the perspective of history. It is therefore significant that the practical consequences of the Carroll decision would be largely nullified if the permissible scope of a warrantless search of an automobile did not include containers and packages found inside the vehicle. Contraband goods are rarely strewn across the trunk or floor of a car; since by their very nature such goods must be withheld from public view, they rarely can be placed in an automobile unless they are enclosed within some form of container. . . .

 

      A lawful search of fixed premises generally extends to the entire area in which the object of the search may be found and is not limited by the possibility that separate acts of entry or opening may be required to complete the search. . . . A warrant to open a footlocker to search for marihuana would also authorize the opening of packages found inside. A warrant to search a vehicle would support a search of every part of the vehicle that might contain the object of the search. When a legitimate search is under way, and when its purpose and its limits have been precisely defined, nice distinctions between closets, drawers and containers, in the case of a home, or between glove compartments, upholstered seats, trunks and wrapped packages, in the case of a vehicle, must give way to the interest in the prompt and efficient completion of the task at hand.

 

      This rule applies equally to all containers, as indeed we believe it must. . . .

 

      The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile thus 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 where there is probable cause to believe it may be found. . . . Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify search of the entire cab. . . .

 

      The [automobile] exception recognized in Carroll is unquestionably one that is “specifically established and well delineated.” . . . We hold that the scope of a warrantless search authorized by that exception is no broader and no narrower than a magistrate could legitimately authorize by warrant. If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle that may contain the object of the search. . . .

 

      Justice BLACKMUN, concurring. . . .

 

      Justice POWELL, concurring. . . .

 

      Justice WHITE, dissenting. . . .

 

      Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

 

      The majority today not only repeals all realistic limits on warrantless automobile searches, it repeals the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement itself. By equating a police officer’s estimation of probable cause with a magistrate’s, the Court utterly disregards the value of a neutral and detached magistrate. . . .

 

      This case will have profound implications for the privacy of citizens traveling in automobiles. . . .