453 U.S. 420 (1981), 80-148, Robbins v. California

Docket Nº:No. 80-148
Citation:453 U.S. 420, 101 S.Ct. 2841, 69 L.Ed.2d 744
Party Name:Robbins v. California
Case Date:July 01, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 420

453 U.S. 420 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 2841, 69 L.Ed.2d 744




No. 80-148

United States Supreme Court

July 1, 1981

Argued April 27, 1981




When California Highway Patrol officers stopped petitioner's station wagon for proceeding erratically, they smelled marihuana smoke as he opened the car door. In the ensuing search of the car, the officers [101 S.Ct. 2843] found in the luggage compartment two packages wrapped in green opaque plastic. They then unwrapped the packages, both of which contained bricks of marihuana. Petitioner was charged with various drug offenses, and, after his pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found when the packages were unwrapped was denied, he was convicted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the warrantless opening of the packages was constitutionally permissible, since any experienced observer could reasonably have inferred from the appearance of the packages that they contained bricks of marihuana.

Held: The judgment is reversed. Pp. 423-29; 429-436.

103 Cal.App.3d 34, 162 Cal.Rptr. 780, reversed.

JUSTICE STEWART, joined by JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL, concluded that the opening of the packages without a search warrant violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 423-429.

(a) A closed piece of luggage found in a lawfully searched car is constitutionally protected to the same extent as are closed pieces of luggage found anywhere else. United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1; Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753. Pp. 423-425.

(b) With respect to the constitutional protection to which a closed container found in the lawful search of an automobile is entitled, there is no distinction between containers, such as suitcases, commonly used to transport "personal effects," i.e., property worn on or carried about the person or having some intimate relation to the person, and flimsier containers, such as cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Such a distinction has no basis in the language or meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people and their effects, and protects those effects whether they are "personal" or "impersonal." And there are no objective criteria by which such a distinction could be made. Pp. 425-427.

(c) Unless a closed container found in an automobile is such that

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its contents may be said to be in plain view, those contents are fully protected by the Fourth Amendment. Here, the evidence was insufficient to justify an exception to the rule on the ground that the contents of the packages in question could be inferred from their outward appearance. To fall within such exception, a container must so clearly announce its contents, whether by its distinctive configuration, transparency, or otherwise, that its contents are obvious to the observer. Pp. 427-428.

JUSTICE POWELL concluded that petitioner had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the opaquely wrapped and sealed package in question. The Fourth Amendment requires a police officer to obtain a warrant before searching a container that customarily serves as a repository for personal effects or when, as here, the circumstances indicate that the defendant has a reasonable expectation that the contents will not be open to public scrutiny. Pp. 429-436.

STEWART, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., concurred in the judgment. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 429. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 436, REHNQUIST, J., post, p. 437, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 444, filed dissenting opinions.

Page 422

STEWART, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEWART announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL joined.


On the early morning of January 5, 1975, California Highway Patrol officers stopped the petitioner's car -- a 1966 Chevrolet station wagon -- because he had been driving erratically. He got out of his vehicle and walked towards the patrol car. When one of the officers asked him for [101 S.Ct. 2844] his driver's license and the station wagon's registration, he fumbled with his wallet. When the petitioner opened the car door to get out the registration, the officers smelled marihuana smoke. One of the officers patted down the petitioner, and discovered a vial of liquid. The officer then searched the passenger compartment of the car, and found marihuana as well as equipment for using it.

After putting the petitioner in the patrol car, the officers opened the tailgate of the station wagon, located a handle set flush in the deck, and lifted it up to uncover a recessed luggage compartment. In the compartment were a totebag and two packages wrapped in green opaque plastic.1 The police unwrapped the packages; each one contained 15 pounds of marihuana.

The petitioner was charged with various drug offenses, his pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found when the

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packages were unwrapped was denied, and a jury convicted him. In an unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment in all relevant respects. This Court granted a writ of certiorari, vacated the Court of Appeal's judgment, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753. 443 U.S. 903. On remand, the Court of Appeal again found the warrantless opening of the packages constitutionally permissible, since the trial court

could reasonably [have] conclude[d] that the contents of the packages could have been inferred from their outward appearance, so that appellant could not have held a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the contents.

103 Cal.App.3d 34, 40, 162 Cal.Rptr. 780, 783. Because of continuing uncertainty as to whether closed containers found during a lawful warrantless search of an automobile may themselves be searched without a warrant, this Court granted certiorari. 449 U.S. 1109.


The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which is made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, establishes "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." This Court has held that a search is per se unreasonable, and thus violates the Fourth Amendment, if the police making the search have not first secured from a neutral magistrate a warrant that satisfies the terms of the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment. See, e.g., Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357; Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20, 33. Although t,he Court has identified some exceptions to this warrant requirement, the Court has emphasized that these exceptions are "few," "specifically established," and "well-delineated." Katz v. United States, supra, at 357.

Among these exceptions is the so-called "automobile exception." See Colorado v. Bannister, 449 U.S. 1. In Carroll

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v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, the Court held that a search warrant is unnecessary

where there is probable cause to search an automobile stopped on the highway; the car is movable, the occupants are alerted, and the car's contents may never be found again if a warrant must be obtained.

Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 51. In recent years, we have twice been confronted [101 S.Ct. 2845] with the suggestion that this "automobile exception" somehow justifies the warrantless search of a closed container found inside an automobile. Each time, the Court has refused to accept the suggestion.

In United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, the Government argued in part that luggage is analogous to motor vehicles for Fourth Amendment purposes, and that the "automobile exception" should thus be extended to encompass closed pieces of luggage. The Court rejected the analogy and insisted that the exception is confined to the special and possibly unique circumstances which were the occasion of its genesis. First, the Court said that "[o]ur treatment of automobiles has been based in part on their inherent mobility, which often makes obtaining a judicial warrant impracticable." Id. at 12. While both cars and luggage may be "mobile," luggage itself may be brought and kept under the control of the police.

Second, the Court acknowledged that "inherent mobility" cannot alone justify the automobile exception, since the Court has sometimes approved warrantless searches in which the automobile's mobility was irrelevant. See Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441-442; South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 367. The automobile exception, the Court said, is thus also supported by "the diminished expectation of privacy which surrounds the automobile" and which arises from the facts that a car is used for transportation, and not as a residence or a repository of personal effects, that a car's occupants and contents travel in plain view, and that automobiles are necessarily highly regulated by government. United States v. Chadwick, supra, at 12-13. No such diminished

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expectation of privacy characterizes luggage; on the contrary, luggage typically is a repository of personal effects, the contents of closed pieces of luggage are hidden from view, and luggage is not generally subject to state regulation.

In Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753, the State of Arkansas argued that the "automobile exception" should be extended to allow the warrantless search of everything found in an automobile during a lawful warrantless search of the vehicle itself. The Court rejected this argument for much the same reason it had rejected the Government's argument in Chadwick. Pointing out, first, that, "[o]nce police have seized a suitcase, as they did here, the extent of its mobility is in no way affected by the place from which it was taken," the Court said that there...

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