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Automobile searches

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Description: The inspection by police and other government agents of the interiors of motor vehicles to look for evidence of unlawful activity.


Significance: Starting with its 1925 ruling, the Supreme Court made it progressively easier for police and other government agencies to engage lawfully in searches of motor vehicles by interpreting the search and seizure requirements of the Fourth Amendment in a manner that clearly distinguishes the search of a vehicle from that of a residence or a container.


The framers of the Fourth Amendment were concerned about protecting people from unlawful government searches and seizures of their “houses” and “effects” when they drafted the amendment in the late eighteenth century. When the automobile became prominent in U.S. society more than a century later, the Supreme Court had to decide how the words and principles of the Fourth Amendment should be applied to searches of cars and other motor vehicles. Beginning with its decision in Carroll v. United States (1925), the Court has consistently held that where there is probable cause that an automobile contains evidence of a crime, the police may search that vehicle without a search warrant. Unlike houses, automobiles are mobile and therefore the police may not have time to obtain a warrant before the vehicle and any evidence contained within it disappear, the Court reasoned. As the Court applied the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment differently to automobiles than to houses, inevitably the question arose as to whether the search of a motorhome would be treated as that of a house or an automobile. In California v. Carney (1985), the Court held that in most cases, the potential mobility of a motorhome obviates the need for the police to obtain a search warrant. Searches of effects, such as containers, generally are subject to the same warrant requirement that applies to house searches. The Court was thus confronted with the question of whether to require the police to obtain a warrant before searching a container located in an automobile. In a series of cases culminating in California v. Acevedo (1991), the Court held that when the police have probable cause that a container in an automobile contains criminal evidence or that the evidence is located somewhere in the automobile and can fit into the container, they may search the container without obtaining a warrant. The Court has also authorized police searches of automobiles in situations in which there was no probable cause that there was criminal evidence within the automobile. After lawfully arresting the occupant of a vehicle, the police may search the passenger area of that vehicle, including the glove compartment or items within the passenger area. According to the Court's decision in New York v. Belton, (1981), such a search is permissible to prevent the arrested person from grabbing a weapon or disposing of evidence. Additionally, when police properly impound a vehicle, they are allowed to search all parts of the vehicle in order to inventory its contents, as the Court held in South Dakota v. Opperman (1976). In United States v. Di Re (1999), the Court held that officers who stopped a driver for a traffic violation and saw evidence of drugs were allowed to search everything in the automobile and the private effects of a passenger.



Further Reading

  • Bloom, Robert M. Searches, Seizures, and Warrants. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
  • Dash, Samuel. The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  • Hall, John Wesley. Search and Seizure. 3d ed. Charlottesville, Va.: LEXIS Law Publishing, 2000.
  • Quick, Bruce D. Law of Arrest, Search, and Seizure: An Examination of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Rev. ed. Bismarck, N.D.: Attorney General's Office, Criminal Justice Training and Statistics Division, 1987.
  • Regini, Lisa A. “The Motor Vehicle Exception: When and Where to Search.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 68, no. 7 (July, 1999): 26-32.
  • Savage, David G. “Privacy Rights Pulled Over: Cops Get More Power to Search Personal Effects in Vehicles.” American Bar Association Journal 85 (June, 1999): 42-44.
  • Stephens, Otis H., and Richard A. Glenn. Unreasonable Searches and Seizures: Rights and Liberties Under the Law. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.