471 U.S. 386 (1985), 83-859, California v. Carney

Docket Nº:No. 83-859
Citation:471 U.S. 386, 105 S.Ct. 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406, 53 U.S.L.W. 4521
Party Name:California v. Carney
Case Date:May 13, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 386

471 U.S. 386 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406, 53 U.S.L.W. 4521




No. 83-859

United States Supreme Court

May 13, 1985

Argued October 30, 1984



A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, who had information that respondent's mobile motor home was being used to exchange marihuana for sex, watched respondent approach a youth who accompanied respondent to the motor home, which was parked in a lot in downtown San Diego. The agent and other agents then kept the vehicle under surveillance, and stopped the youth after he left the vehicle. He told them that he had received marihuana in return for allowing respondent sexual contacts. At the agents' request, the youth returned to the motor home and knocked on the door; respondent stepped out. Without a warrant or consent, one agent then entered the motor home and observed marihuana. A subsequent search of the motor home at the police station revealed additional marihuana, and respondent was charged with possession of marihuana for sale. After his motion to suppress the evidence discovered in the motor home was denied, respondent was convicted in California Superior Court on a plea of nolo contendere. The California [105 S.Ct. 2067] Court of Appeal affirmed. The California Supreme Court reversed, holding that the search of the motor home was unreasonable and that the motor vehicle exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment did not apply, because expectations of privacy in a motor home are more like those in a dwelling than in an automobile.

Held: The warrantless search of respondent's motor home did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 390-395.

(a) When a vehicle is being used on the highways or is capable of such use and is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes, the two justifications for the vehicle exception come into play. First, the vehicle is readily mobile, and, second, there is a reduced expectation of privacy stemming from the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on highways. Here, while respondent's vehicle possessed some attributes of a home, it clearly falls within the vehicle exception. To distinguish between respondent's motor home and an ordinary sedan for purposes of the vehicle exception would require that the exception be applied depending on the size of the vehicle and the quality of its appointments. Moreover, to fail to apply the exception to vehicles such as a motor home would ignore the fact that a motor home lends itself easily to use as an instrument of illicit drug traffic or other illegal activity. Pp. 390-394.

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(b) The search in question was not unreasonable. It was one that a magistrate could have authorized if presented with the facts. The DEA agents, based on uncontradicted evidence that respondent was distributing a controlled substance from the vehicle, had abundant probable cause to enter and search the vehicle. Pp. 394-395.

34 Cal.3d 597, 668 P.2d 807, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 395.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether law enforcement agents violated the Fourth Amendment when they conducted a warrantless search, based on probable cause, of a fully mobile "motor home" located in a public place.


On May 31, 1979, Drug Enforcement Agency Agent Robert Williams watched respondent, Charles Carney, approach

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a youth in downtown San Diego. The youth accompanied Carney to a Dodge Mini Motor Home parked in a nearby lot. Carney and the youth closed the window shades in the motor home, including one across the front window. Agent Williams had previously received uncorroborated information that the same motor home was used by another person who was exchanging marihuana for sex. Williams, with assistance from other agents, kept the motor home under surveillance for the entire one and one-quarter hours that Carney and the youth remained inside. When the youth left the motor home, the agents followed and stopped him. The youth told the agents that he had received marihuana in return for allowing Carney sexual contacts.

At the agents' request, the youth returned to the motor home and knocked on its door; Carney stepped out. The agents identified themselves as law enforcement officers. Without a warrant or consent, one agent entered the motor home and observed marihuana, plastic bags, and a scale of the kind used in weighing drugs on a table. Agent Williams took Carney into custody and took possession of the motor home. A subsequent search of the motor home at the police station revealed additional marihuana in the cupboards and refrigerator.

Respondent was charged with possession of marihuana for sale. At a preliminary hearing, he moved to suppress the evidence [105 S.Ct. 2068] discovered in the motor home. The Magistrate denied the motion, upholding the initial search as a justifiable search for other persons, and the subsequent search as a routine inventory search.

Respondent renewed his suppression motion in the Superior Court. The Superior Court also rejected the claim, holding that there was probable cause to arrest respondent, that the search of the motor home was authorized under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, and that the motor home itself could be seized without a warrant as an instrumentality of the crime. Respondent

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then pleaded nolo contendere to the charges against him, and was placed on probation for three years.

Respondent appealed from the order placing him on probation. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, reasoning that the vehicle exception applied to respondent's motor home. 117 Cal.App.3d 36, 172 Cal.Rptr. 430 (1981).

The California Supreme Court reversed the conviction. 34 Cal.3d 597, 668 P.2d 807 (1983). The Supreme Court did not disagree with the conclusion of the trial court that the agents had probable cause to arrest respondent and to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of a crime; however, the court held that the search was unreasonable because no warrant was obtained, rejecting the State's argument that the vehicle exception to the warrant requirement should apply.1 That court reached its decision by concluding that the mobility of a vehicle "is no longer the prime justification for the automobile exception; rather, `the answer lies in the diminished expectation of privacy which surrounds the automobile.'" Id. at 605, 668 P.2d at 811. The California Supreme Court held that the expectations of privacy in a motor home are more like those in a dwelling than in an automobile because the primary function of motor homes is not to provide transportation but to "provide the occupant with living quarters." Id. at 606, 668 P.2d at 812.

We granted certiorari, 465 U.S. 1098 (1984). We reverse.

Page 390


The Fourth Amendment protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." This fundamental right is preserved by a requirement that searches be conducted pursuant to a warrant issued by an independent judicial officer. There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule that a warrant must be secured before a search is undertaken; one is the so-called "automobile exception" at issue in this case. This exception to the warrant requirement was first set forth by the Court 60 years ago in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). There, the Court recognized that the privacy interests in an automobile are constitutionally protected; however, it held that the ready mobility of the automobile justifies a lesser degree of protection of those interests. The Court rested this exception on a long-recognized distinction between stationary structures and vehicles:

[T]he guaranty of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures by the Fourth Amendment has been construed, practically since the beginning of Government, as recognizing a necessary [105 S.Ct. 2069] difference between a search of a store, dwelling house or other structure in respect of which a proper official warrant readily may be obtained, and a search of a ship, motor boat, wagon or automobile, for contraband goods, where it is not practicable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.

Id. at 153 (emphasis added).

The capacity to be "quickly moved" was clearly the basis of the holding in Carroll, and our cases have consistently recognized ready mobility as one of the principal bases of the automobile exception. See, e.g., Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. 58, 59 (1967); Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 52 (1970); Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 442 (1973);

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Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 588 (1974); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 367 (1976). In Chambers, for example, commenting on the rationale for the vehicle exception, we noted that "the opportunity to search is fleeting since a car is readily movable." 399 U.S. at 51. More recently, in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 806 (1982), we once again emphasized that "an immediate intrusion is necessary" because of "the nature of an automobile in transit. . . ." The mobility of automobiles, we have observed, "creates circumstances of such exigency that, as a practical necessity, rigorous enforcement of the warrant requirement is impossible." South Dakota v. Opperman, supra, at 367.

However, although ready mobility alone was perhaps the original justification for the vehicle exception, our later cases have made clear that...

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