428 U.S. 364 (1976), 75-76, South Dakota v. Opperman

Docket Nº:No. 75-76
Citation:428 U.S. 364, 96 S.Ct. 3092, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000
Party Name:South Dakota v. Opperman
Case Date:July 06, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 364

428 U.S. 364 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 3092, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000

South Dakota



No. 75-76

United States Supreme Court

July 6, 1976

Argued March 29, 1976



After respondent's car had been impounded for multiple parking violations the police, following standard procedures, inventoried the contents of the car. In doing so, they discovered marihuana in the glove compartment, for the possession of which respondent was subsequently arrested. His motion to suppress the evidence yielded by the warrantless inventory search was denied, and respondent was thereafter convicted. The State Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the evidence had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth.

Held: The police procedures followed in this case did not involve an "unreasonable" search in violation of the [96 S.Ct. 3095] Fourth Amendment. The expectation of privacy in one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office, Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 590. When vehicles are impounded, police routinely follow caretaking procedures by securing and inventorying the cars' contents. These procedures have been widely sustained as reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. This standard practice was followed here, and there is no suggestion of any investigatory motive on the part of the police. Pp. 367-376.

89 S.D. ___ , 228 N.W.2d 152, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 376. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 396. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and STEWART, JJ., joined, post, p. 384.

Page 365

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We review the judgment of the Supreme Court of South Dakota, holding that local police violated the Fourth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, as applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment, when they conducted a routine inventory search of an automobile lawfully impounded by police for violations of municipal parking ordinances.


Local ordinances prohibit parking in certain areas of downtown Vermillion, S.D. between the hours of 2 am. and 6 a.m. During the early morning hours of December 10, 1973, a Vermillion police officer observed respondent's unoccupied vehicle illegally parked in the restricted zone. At approximately 3 a.m., the officer issued an overtime parking ticket and placed it on the car's windshield. The citation warned:

Vehicles in violation of any parking ordinance may be towed from the area.

At approximately 10 o'clock on the same morning, another

Page 366

officer issued a second ticket for an overtime parking violation. These circumstances were routinely reported to police headquarters, and after the vehicle was inspected, the car was towed to the city impound lot.

From outside the car at the impound lot, a police officer observed a watch on the dashboard and other items of personal property located on the back seat and back floorboard. At the officer's direction, the car door was then unlocked and, using a standard inventory form pursuant to standard police procedures, the officer inventoried the contents of the car, including the contents of the glove compartment, which was unlocked. There he found marihuana contained in a plastic bag. All items, including the contraband, were removed to the police department for safekeeping.1 During the late afternoon of December 10, respondent appeared at the police department to claim his property. The marihuana was retained by police.

Respondent was subsequently arrested on charges of possession of marihuana. His motion to suppress the evidence yielded by [96 S.Ct. 3096] the inventory search was denied; he was convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to a fine of $100 and 14 days' incarceration in the county jail. On appeal, the Supreme Court of South Dakota reversed

Page 367

the conviction. 89 S.D. ___, 228 N.W.2d 152. The court concluded that the evidence had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. We granted certiorari, 423 U.S. 923 (1975), and we reverse.


This Court has traditionally drawn a distinction between automobiles and homes or offices in relation to the Fourth Amendment. Although automobiles are "effects," and thus within the reach of the Fourth Amendment, Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 439 (1973), warrantless examinations of automobiles have been upheld in circumstances in which a search of a home or office would not. Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 589 (1974); Cady v. Dombrowski, supra at 439-440; Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 48 (1970).

The reason for this well settled distinction is twofold. First, the inherent mobility of automobiles creates circumstances of such exigency that, as a practical necessity, rigorous enforcement of the warrant requirement is impossible. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153-154 (1925); Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 459-460 (1971). But the Court has also upheld warrantless searches where no immediate danger was presented that the car would be removed from the jurisdiction. Chambers v. Maroney, supra at 51-52; Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. 58 (1967). Besides the element of mobility, less rigorous warrant requirements govern because the expectation of privacy with respect to one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office.2 In discharging their varied responsibilities

Page 368

for ensuring the public safety, law enforcement officials are necessarily brought into frequent contact with automobiles. Most of this contact is distinctly noncriminal in nature. Cady v. Dombrowski, supra at 442. Automobiles, unlike homes, are subjected to pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls, including periodic inspection and licensing requirements. As an everyday occurrence, police stop and examine vehicles when license plates or inspection stickers have expired, or if other violations, such as exhaust fumes or excessive noise, are noted, or if headlights or other safety equipment are not in proper working order.

The expectation of privacy as to automobiles is further diminished by the obviously public nature of automobile travel. Only two Terms ago, the Court noted:

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.

Cardwell v. Lewis, supra at 590.

[96 S.Ct. 3097] In the interests of public safety and as part of what the Court has called "community caretaking functions," Cady v. Dombrowski, supra at 441, automobiles are frequently taken into police custody. Vehicle accidents present one such occasion. To permit the uninterrupted flow of traffic and in some circumstances to preserve evidence, disabled or damaged vehicles will often be removed from the highways or streets at the behest of police engaged solely in caretaking and traffic control activities.

Page 369

Police will also frequently remove and impound automobiles which violate parking ordinances and which thereby jeopardize both the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic.3 The authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.

When vehicles are impounded, local police departments generally follow a routine practice of securing and inventorying the automobiles' contents. These procedures developed in response to three distinct needs: the protection of the owner's property while it remains in police custody, United States v. Mitchell, 458 F.2d 960, 961 (CA9 1972); the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, United States v. Kelehar, 470 F.2d 176, 178 (CA5 1972); and the protection of the police from potential danger, Cooper v. California, supra at 61-62. The practice has been viewed as essential to respond to incidents of theft or vandalism. See Cabbler v. Commonwealth, 212 Va. 520, 522, 184 S.E.2d 781, 782 (1971), cert. denied, 405 U.S. 1073 (1972); Warrix v. State, 50 Wis.2d 368, 376, 184 N.W.2d 189, 194 (1971). In addition, police frequently attempt to determine whether a vehicle has been stolen, and thereafter abandoned.

These caretaking procedures have almost uniformly been upheld by the state courts, which, by virtue of the localized nature of traffic regulation, have had considerable occasion to deal with the issue.4 Applying the

Page 370

Fourth Amendment standard of "reasonableness,"5 the state courts have overwhelmingly concluded that, even if an inventory is characterized as a "search,"6 [96 S.Ct. 3098] the

Page 371

intrusion is constitutionally permissible. See, e.g., City of St. Paul v. Myles, 298 Minn. 298, 300-301, 218 N.W.2d 697, 699 (1974); State v. Tully, 166 Conn.126, 136, 348 A.2d 603, 609 (1974); People v. Trusty, 183 Colo. 291, 296-297, 516 P.2d 423, 425-426 (1973); People v. Sullivan, 29 N.Y.2d 69, 73, 272 N.E.2d 464, 466 (1971); Cabbler v. Commonwealth, supra; Warrix v. State, supra; State v. Wallen, 185 Neb. 44, 173 N.W.2d 372, cert. denied, 399 U.S. 912 (1970); State v. Criscola, 21 Utah 2d 272, 444 P.2d 517 (1968); State v. Montague, 73 Wash.2d 381, 438 P.2d 571 (1968); People v. Clark, 32 Ill.App.3d 898, 336 N.E.2d 892 (1975); State v. Achter, 512 S.W.2d 894 (Mo.Ct.App. 1974); Bennett v. State, 507 P.2d 1252 (Okla.Crim.App. 1973); People v. Willis, 46 Mich.App. 436, 208 N.W.2d 204 (1973); State v. All, 17 N.C.App. 284, 193...

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