456 U.S. 798 (1982), 80-09, United States v. Ross

Docket Nº:No. 80-09
Citation:456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572
Party Name:United States v. Ross
Case Date:June 01, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 798

456 U.S. 798 (1982)

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

United States

v.

Ross

No. 80-09

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 1982

Argued March 1, 1982

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Acting on information from an informant that a described individual was selling narcotics kept in the trunk of a certain car parked at a specified location, District of Columbia police officers immediately drove to the location, found the car there, and, a short while later, stopped the car and arrested the driver (respondent), who matched the informant's description. One of the officers opened the car's trunk, found a closed brown paper bag, and after opening the bag, discovered glassine bags containing white powder (later determined to be heroin). The officer then drove the car to headquarters, where another warrantless search of the trunk revealed a zippered leather pouch containing cash. Respondent was subsequently convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute -- the heroin and currency found in the searches having been introduced in evidence after respondent's pretrial motion to suppress the evidence had been denied. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, while the officers had probable cause to stop and search respondent's car -- including its trunk -- without a warrant, they should not have opened either the paper bag or the leather pouch found in the trunk without first obtaining a warrant.

Held: 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 warrantless search of the vehicle that is as thorough as a magistrate could authorize by warrant. Pp. 804-825.

(a) The "automobile exception" to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement established in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, applies to searches of vehicles that are supported by probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. In this class of cases, a search is not unreasonable if based on objective facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant, even though a warrant has not actually been obtained. Pp. 804-809.

(b) However, the rationale justifying the automobile exception does not apply so as to permit a warrantless search of any movable container that is believed to be carrying an illicit substance and that is found in a public place even when the container is placed in a vehicle (not otherwise believed to be carrying contraband). United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1; Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753. Pp. 809-814.

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(c) Where police officers have probable cause to search an entire vehicle, they may conduct a warrantless search of every part of the vehicle and its contents, including all containers and packages, that may conceal the object of the search. The scope of the search 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. For example, probable cause to believe that undocumented aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase. Pp. 817-824.

(d) The doctrine of stare decisis does not preclude rejection here of the holding in Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420, and some of the reasoning in Arkansas v. Sanders, supra. Pp. 824-825.

210 U.S.App.D.C. 342, 655 F.2d 1159, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 825, and POWELL, J., post, p. 826, filed concurring opinions. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion,post, p. 826. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 827.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

[102 S.Ct. 2160] JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, the Court held that a warrantless search of an automobile stopped by police officers who had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband was not unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court in Carroll did not explicitly

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address the scope of the search that is permissible. 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."1

I

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. A license check disclosed that the car was registered to Albert Ross; a computer check on Ross revealed that he fit the informant's description and used the alias "Bandit." In two passes through the neighborhood the officers did not observe anyone matching the informant's description. To avoid alerting persons on the street, they left the area.

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The officers returned five minutes later and observed the maroon Malibu turning off Ridge Street onto Fourth 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 paper bag was heroin. No warrant was obtained.

Ross was charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a). 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 [102 S.Ct. 2161] in evidence at trial, and Ross was convicted.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. It held that the police had probable cause to stop and search Ross' car and that, under Carroll v. United States, supra, and Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, the officers lawfully could search the automobile -- including its trunk -- without a warrant. The court considered separately, however, the warrantless search of the two containers found in the trunk. On the basis of Arkansas v. Sanders,

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442 U.S. 753, the court concluded that the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a container found in an automobile depends on whether the owner possesses a reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents. Applying that test, the court held that the warrantless search of the paper bag was valid, but the search of the leather pouch was not. The court remanded for a new trial at which the items taken from the paper bag, but not those from the leather pouch, could be admitted.2

The entire Court of Appeals then voted to rehear the case en banc. A majority of the court rejected the panel's conclusion that a distinction of constitutional significance existed between the two containers found in respondent's trunk; it held that the police should not have opened either container without first obtaining a warrant. The court reasoned:

No specific, well delineated exception called to our attention permits the police to dispense with a warrant to open and search "unworthy" containers. Moreover, we believe that a rule under which the validity of a warrantless search would turn on judgments about the durability of a container would impose an unreasonable and unmanageable burden on police and courts. For these reasons, and because the Fourth Amendment protects all persons, not just those with the resources or fastidiousness to place their effects in containers that decisionmakers would rank in the luggage line, we hold that the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement forbids the warrantless opening of a closed, opaque paper bag to the same extent that it forbids the warrantless opening of a small unlocked suitcase or a zippered leather pouch.

210 U.S.App.D.C. 342, 344, 655 F.2d 1159, 1161 (1981) (footnote omitted).

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