526 U.S. 295 (1999), 98-184, Wyoming v. Houghton

Docket Nº:Case No. 98-184
Citation:526 U.S. 295, 119 S.Ct. 1297, 143 L.Ed.2d 408, 67 U.S.L.W. 4225
Party Name:WYOMING v. HOUGHTON
Case Date:April 05, 1999
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 295

526 U.S. 295 (1999)

119 S.Ct. 1297, 143 L.Ed.2d 408, 67 U.S.L.W. 4225

WYOMING

v.

HOUGHTON

Case No. 98-184

United States Supreme Court

April 5, 1999

Argued January 12, 1999

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WYOMING

Syllabus

During a routine traffic stop, a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer noticed a hypodermic syringe in the driver's shirt pocket, which the driver admitted using to take drugs. The officer then searched the passenger compartment for contraband, removing and searching what respondent, a passenger in the car, claimed was her purse. He found drug paraphernalia there and arrested respondent on drug charges. The trial court denied her motion to suppress all evidence from the purse as the fruit of an unlawful search, holding that the officer had probable cause to search the car for contraband, and, by extension, any containers therein that could hold such contraband. Respondent was convicted. In reversing, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that an officer with probable cause to search a vehicle may search all containers that might conceal the object of the search; but, if the officer knows or should know that a container belongs to a passenger who is not suspected of criminal activity, then the container is outside the scope of the search unless someone had the opportunity to conceal contraband within it to avoid detection. Applying that rule here, the court concluded that the search violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Held:

Police officers with probable cause to search a car, as in this case, may inspect passengers' belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search. In determining whether a particular governmental action violates the Fourth Amendment, this Court inquires first whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search or seizure under common law when the Amendment was framed, see, e. g., Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 931. Where that inquiry yields no answer, the Court must evaluate the search or seizure under traditional reasonableness standards by balancing an individual's privacy interests against legitimate governmental interests, see, e. g., Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 652-653. This Court has concluded that the Framers would have regarded as reasonable the warrantless search of a car that police had probable cause to believe contained contraband, Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, as well as the warrantless search of containers within the automobile, United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798. Neither Ross nor the historical evidence it relied upon admits of a distinction based on ownership. The analytical principle underlying Ross 's rule is also fully consistent with the balance of this

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Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Even if the historical evidence were equivocal, the balancing of the relative interests weighs decidedly in favor of searching a passenger's belongings. Passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property they transport in cars. See, e. g., Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 590. The degree of intrusiveness of a package search upon personal privacy and personal dignity is substantially less than the degree of intrusiveness of the body searches at issue in United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, and Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85. In contrast to the passenger's reduced privacy expectations, the governmental interest in effective law enforcement would be appreciably impaired without the ability to search the passenger's belongings, since an automobile's ready mobility creates the risk that evidence or contraband will be permanently lost while a warrant is obtained, California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386; since a passenger may have an interest in concealing evidence of wrongdoing in a common enterprise with the driver, cf. Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 413-414; and since a criminal might be able to hide contraband in a passenger's belongings as readily as in other containers in the car, see, e. g., Rawlings v. Kentucky, 448 U.S. 98, 102. The Wyoming Supreme Court's "passenger property" rule would be unworkable in practice. Finally, an exception from the historical practice described in Ross protecting only a passenger's property, rather than property belonging to anyone other than the driver, would be less sensible than the rule that a package may be searched, whether or not its owner is present as a passenger or otherwise, because it might contain the object of the search. Pp. 299-307.

956 P.2d 363, reversed.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 307. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Souter and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, post, p. 309.

Paul S. Rehurek, Deputy Attorney General of Wyoming, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Gay Woodhouse, Acting Attorney General, and D. Michael Pauling, Senior Assistant Attorney General.

Barbara McDowell argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Assistant Attorney General Robinson, and Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben.

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Donna D. Domonkos, by appointment of the Court, 525 U.S. 980, argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Sylvia Lee Hackl and Michael Dinnerstein.[*]

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether police officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they search a passenger's personal belongings inside an automobile that they have probable cause to believe contains contraband.

I

In the early morning hours of July 23, 1995, a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer stopped an automobile for speeding and driving with a faulty brake light. There were three

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passengers in the front seat of the car: David Young (the driver), his girlfriend, and respondent. While questioning Young, the officer noticed a hypodermic syringe in Young's shirt pocket. He left the occupants under the supervision of two backup officers as he went to get gloves from his patrol car. Upon his return, he instructed Young to step out of the car and place the syringe on the hood. The officer then asked Young why he had a syringe; with refreshing candor, Young replied that he used it to take drugs.

At this point, the backup officers ordered the two female passengers out of the car and asked them for identification. Respondent falsely identified herself as "Sandra James" and stated that she did not have any identification. Meanwhile, in light of Young's admission, the officer searched the passenger compartment of the car for contraband. On the back seat, he found a purse, which respondent claimed as hers. He removed from the purse a wallet containing respondent's driver's license, identifying her properly as Sandra K. Houghton. When the officer asked her why she had lied about her name, she replied: "In case things went bad."

Continuing his search of the purse, the officer found a brown pouch and a black wallet-type container. Respondent denied that the former was hers, and claimed ignorance of how it came to be there; it was found to contain drug paraphernalia and a syringe with 60 ccs of methamphetamine. Respondent admitted ownership of the black container, which was also found to contain drug paraphernalia, and a syringe (which respondent acknowledged was hers) with 10 ccs of methamphetamine—an amount insufficient to support the felony conviction at issue in this case. The officer also found fresh needle-track marks on respondent's arms. He placed her under arrest.

The State of Wyoming charged respondent with felony possession of methamphetamine in a liquid amount greater than three-tenths of a gram. See Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-7-1031(c)(iii) (Supp. 1996). After a hearing, the trial court denied

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her motion to suppress all evidence obtained from the purse as the fruit of a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The court held that the officer had probable cause to search the car for contraband, and, by extension, any containers therein that could hold such contraband. A jury convicted respondent as charged.

The Wyoming Supreme Court, by divided vote, reversed the conviction and announced the following rule:

"Generally, once probable cause is established to search a vehicle, an officer is entitled to search all containers therein which may contain the object of the search. However, if the officer knows or should know that a container is the personal effect of a passenger who is not suspected of criminal activity, then the container is outside the scope of the search unless someone had the opportunity to conceal the contraband within the personal effect to avoid detection." 956 P.2d 363, 372 (1998).

The court held that the search of respondent's purse violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments because the officer "knew or should have known that the purse did not belong to the driver, but to one of the passengers," and because "there was no probable cause to search the passengers' personal effects and no reason to believe that contraband had been placed within the purse." Ibid. We granted certiorari, 524 U.S. 983 (1998).

II

The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." In determining whether a particular governmental action violates this provision, we inquire first whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search or seizure under the common law when the Amendment was framed. See Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 931 (1995); California v. Hodari...

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