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The motor vehicle exception: when and where to search.

The motor vehicle exception, first recognized in Carroll v. United States(1) and often referred to as the Carroll doctrine, has evolved into an expansive search authority that effectively renders the need to obtain a warrant to search a vehicle unnecessary. When analyzing the manner in which the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the exception and its permissible scope, one can conclude that if the facts indicate a warrant could be obtained to search a vehicle, it is not likely that, as a matter of federal constitutional law, a warrant would be legally required.

The authority of a police officer to search a vehicle has been the subject of numerous Supreme Court decisions. This is not a surprising revelation given the frequency of police-citizen encounters involving vehicles. The Supreme Court has been called upon to address not only when law enforcement officers may engage in this warrantless search but also its permissible scope. This article examines the Court's decisions that establish what is required before law enforcement officers can engage in a warrantless search of a vehicle under the motor vehicle exception and where in the vehicle this search authority extends.


Lawful Access and Probable Cause

A lawful search under the motor vehicle exception requires the existence of probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence or contraband and that the searching officers have lawful access to the vehicle. As necessarily a fact-sensitive inquiry, the probable cause determination is not a topic easily, or usefully, discussed within the context of general legal principles. As illustrated in the following cases, the probable cause needed to justify the warrantless search of a vehicle is the same standard required to support the issuance of a warrant.

Defining Motor Vehicle

Although the motor vehicle exception often has been referred to as the "automobile" exception, this is somewhat of a misnomer because courts have applied this exception in situations involving other types of conveyances. For example, in California v. Carney,(2) the Court upheld the warrantless search of a motor home by DEA agents, concluding that while capable of being used as a house, the motor home was more like a vehicle. The Court indicated that absent clear indications that its character as a vehicle has been changed significantly, such as being situated on cement blocks with utility connections, the motor vehicle exception applies.(3)

In United States v. Albers,(4) the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the warrantless search of a houseboat was reasonable. In this case, National Park Service rangers developed probable cause that the defendants were engaging in illegal activity while aboard a houseboat on Lake Powell in Arizona. The rangers boarded the houseboat and searched it for evidence of criminal activity. While on the houseboat, the rangers seized several items of evidence, including videotapes and film likely containing evidence of criminal activity. Several days later, the rangers viewed the videotape and had the film processed. In addition to what was seized previously from the boat, the videotape and photographs also contained incriminating images. The defendants moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the warrantless search of the houseboat violated the Fourth Amendment and that the delay in viewing the videotape and film was unreasonable. The Court disagreed, concluding that the houseboat fit within the motor vehicle exception and that the later viewing of the film and videotapes (i.e., not viewing the evidence on the scene) did not present a problem under the Fourth Amendment.

With regard to the initial search of the houseboat, the Court reasoned that while the houseboat could function as a house, it also functioned as a readily movable vehicle. In addition, a boat is a conveyance that, like the automobile, is subject to a significant amount of government regulation. The court concluded that viewing the videotapes and film several days after they were removed from the boat was reasonable because the items were likely to contain evidence of the criminal activity.(5)

Courts have applied the vehicle exception to other conveyances such as airplanes(6) and roomettes in trains.(7) In applying the motor vehicle exception to these conveyances, courts have considered their inherent mobility and the lessened expectation of privacy they provide.

Time Constraints

Officers and prosecutors alike often are under the mistaken impression that to defend the warrantless search of a vehicle, the government must demonstrate that it was necessary to conduct the search without a warrant because it was impracticable to obtain the approval of a judge before searching. This confusion can be traced to judicial opinions that refer to exigent circumstances when addressing the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a vehicle. The phrase "exigent circumstances" implies that the officer must articulate that there was no time to secure a warrant. However, the view that the search is only valid if this time element can be demonstrated is inconsistent with the Supreme Court treatment of the motor vehicle exception.

For example, in Pennsylvania v. LaBron,(8) the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's conclusion that the U.S. Constitution requires that police obtain a warrant before searching a vehicle unless the police can demonstrate that they had no time to do so. Satisfied that law enforcement had time to obtain a search warrant, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the warrantless search of the defendant's vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment.(9) The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, concluding that the ready mobility of the vehicle and its reduced expectation of privacy "excuse failure to obtain a search warrant once probable cause to conduct the search is clear."(10)

In United States v. Ludwig,(11) a border patrol agent walked a trained narcotics dog through a motel parking lot to see if the dog would sniff out any contraband. As the agent walked through the parking lot, the dog alerted to the trunk of the defendant's vehicle, and agents established a surveillance on the vehicle. When the defendant approached the vehicle, the agents asked him for consent to search. He refused. An agent then took the keys, opened the trunk, and discovered several large bags containing marijuana. The district court suppressed the evidence, reasoning that the government should have secured a search warrant because no exigent circumstances existed necessitating a warrantless search. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The circuit court reasoned that the dog alert established probable cause to believe contraband was in the trunk of the vehicle and that the search was reasonable even if there was little or no risk that the vehicle would be driven away before a search warrant could be secured. The court concluded that "[i]f police have probable cause to search a car, they need not get a search warrant first even if they have time and opportunity."(12)

Courts still have been willing to apply the motor vehicle exception in instances where the vehicle has been towed and secured in a police department parking lot, . For example, in United States v. Sinisterra,(13) as part of a drug investigation, federal agents conducted a surveillance on a van that they believed the subject used in his trafficking activities. The subject left the van in the parking lot. When authorities arrested him, he refused to give them consent to search the van. An agent peered through the van window and was able to see kilogram-size cellophane-wrapped packages. In addition, a trained dog alerted to the presence of narcotics.

Based on these observations, the van was towed to a police department parking lot. Agents then went to an assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) in order to begin the warrant process. The AUSA directed them to search without a warrant because the warrant was unnecessary. During the search, agents discovered 200 kilograms of cocaine. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence.

The district court suppressed the evidence, concluding that the motor vehicle exception requires not only probable cause but also exigent circumstances. The district court held that the warrantless search was not justified because the agents had time to obtain a warrant. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The court held that any prior opinions requiring a showing of exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless search were "inconsistent with more recent Supreme Court jurisprudence."(14) The court reasoned that because the van was readily capable of being used on the highways, the motor vehicle exception applied.

Of course, a state supreme court is free to interpret a state constitution more restrictively than the Supreme Court interprets the U.S. Constitution, thus requiring officers within that state to demonstrate insufficient time to obtain a warrant.(15) Absent the exercise of independent state authority, there is no need to demonstrate that a warrant could not be obtained prior to searching.

The Court's Focus Shifts

Language from early vehicle search decisions contributes to the confusion regarding whether a warrant is required if the officers have enough time and opportunity to obtain one. This language suggests that the exception is necessary due to the impracticability of obtaining a warrant "because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought."(16) However, since these early cases, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the motor vehicle exception applies in situations even where it is not likely that the vehicle would be moved before a warrant could be obtained.

For example, in United States v. Johns,(17) the Supreme Court upheld a warrantless search of a motor vehicle that had been seized 3 days beforehand and stored in a secure warehouse. The Court concluded that the search fit within the motor vehicle exception despite the fact that it was highly unlikely that the vehicle would have been moved, or that the vehicle's contents would have been tampered with during the time required to secure a warrant.(18) In Johns, the Supreme Court stated the following:

A vehicle lawfully in police custody may be searched on the basis of probable cause to believe it contains contraband, and there is no requirement of exigent circumstances to justify such a warrantless search.(19)

The rationale shifted from the inherent mobility of the vehicle discussed in the Carroll case to a recognition that there is a reduced expectation of privacy associated with vehicles due to their public nature and the fact that they are subject to extensive government regulation.(20)


Early Guidance Seemed Clear

Ever since the motor vehicle exception was first recognized in Carroll, Supreme Court decisions regarding the exception have contained language that appeared to clearly describ its scope. For example, in United States v. Ross,(21) the Supreme Court stated:

The scope of warrantless searches based on probable cause is no narrower - and no broader - than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant supported by probable cause. Only the prior approval of a magistrate is waived.... [I]f probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.(22)

Despite this apparent clarity, the scope of the vehicle exception has been the subject of confusion and has necessitated periodic Supreme Court clarification, including most recently in Wyoming v. Houghton.(23)

The Search of Containers in the Vehicle

The uncertainty concerning the search's scope primarily has centered on whether containers and other personal belongings found within the vehicle may be opened and searched, especially in situations where the item to be searched belongs to someone who the government does not have reason to believe is involved in criminal activity. Early Supreme Court cases distinguished between a motor vehicle search and the search of a container that happened to be placed in a vehicle. For example, in Arkansas v. Sanders,(24) officers conducted a warrantless search of a suitcase after developing probable cause that it contained marijuana. They conducted the search after the suitcase was retrieved from the trunk of a taxicab. The Supreme Court held that the search was unlawful because the focus of the officer's probable cause centered on the suitcase rather than the vehicle, therefore the motor vehicle exception did not apply.(25) As a result of this distinction, officers have two options. If probable cause centers on evidence in the vehicle, the vehicle exception applies. If probable cause centers on evidence in a container in the vehicle, the vehicle exception does not apply.

The Supreme Court recognized the confusion that the container distinction created and addressed this problem in California v. Acevedo.(26) In Acevedo, officers conducted a surveillance on an apartment known to contain marijuana while another officer obtained a search warrant for the apartment. During the surveillance, officers observed the defendant leave the apartment after a brief stay. The defendant carried a brown paper bag close in size to one of the marijuana packages the officers believed was in the apartment. The defendant placed the bag in the trunk of his vehicle and drove away. After letting him get a short distance from the apartment, officers stopped him and opened the vehicle's trunk. The officers found marijuana inside the brown paper bag.

The California Supreme Court suppressed the contraband, concluding that while the seizure of the vehicle was reasonable, the search of the paper bag required a warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to "reexamine the law applicable to a closed container in an automobile, a subject that has troubled courts and law enforcement officers since it was first considered."(27) The Supreme Court upheld the warrantless search of the bag even though the probable cause for the search was limited to the bag itself. The Court concluded that " is better to adopt one clear-cut rule to govern automobile searches and eliminate the warrant requirement for closed containers."(28) The Court expressly reversed contrary holdings that drew "a curious line between the search of an automobile that coincidentally turns up a container and the search of a container that coincidentally turns up in an automobile."(29) The simplified rule that evolved from Acevedo maintains that containers placed in vehicles may be searched without a warrant even when probable cause to search focuses solely on those containers.(30) In other words, the scope of the warrantless search is no broader or narrower than the scope if a search warrant had been obtained.

While Acevedo offered favorable guidance to law enforcement officers concerning the container issue, uncertainty still existed regarding whether the scope would extend to containers and other personal items belonging to individuals not believed to be involved in the criminal activity. Until recently, this issue remained unclear. In previous cases involving searches of containers in vehicles, the containers always belonged to individuals who the officers had probable cause to believe were involved in criminal activity. In Wyoming v. Houghton,(31) the Supreme Court had an opportunity to address whether the scope of the motor vehicle exception extends to the personal belongings of innocent passengers.

In Houghton, Sandra Houghton was a passenger in a vehicle stopped by a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer. During the stop, the officer noticed a hypodermic syringe in the driver's shirt pocket. The officer asked the driver why he had the syringe and "with refreshing candor,"(32) he replied that he used it to take drugs. When Houghton was asked her name, she gave a false answer and denied having any identification. The passengers were removed from the vehicle and officers began searching it for contraband. One officer located Houghton's purse and retrieved her wallet and some identification. Continuing to search her purse, the officer then retrieved a syringe containing methamphetamine and related drug paraphernalia. She was arrested and subsequently convicted for the possession of a controlled substance.

The Wyoming Supreme Court reversed her conviction.(33) The court reasoned that while probable cause existed to search the motor vehicle for contraband, thus permitting the police to open and examine containers that might have concealed the object of the search, limits still existed on what containers could be searched. The Court concluded that once the officers knew or reasonably should have known that a container was a the personal effect of a passenger not suspected of criminal activity, then that container is outside the scope of the motor vehicle exception.(34)

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Wyoming court and held that when probable cause exists to search a vehicle, that search may extend to passengers' belongings that are capable of concealing the object of the search. The Court rejected the notion that a "passenger's property" rule is required by the Fourth Amendment. Requiring an officer to believe that the passenger and driver were involved in a common criminal enterprise or to have reason to believe that the driver concealed evidence in the passenger's belongings "would dramatically reduce the ability to find and seize contraband and evidence of crime."(35)

The Court reasoned that a passenger, like a driver, already has a lesser expectation of privacy in the vehicle. On the other hand, the interests of the government in investigating criminal activity and uncovering evidence of that activity are significant. When applying traditional Fourth Amendment analysis and weighing the interests of the passenger versus those of the government, the Court determined that the scales weighed heavily in favor of permitting the government to search passengers' belongings.

The Court distinguished the search in Houghton from cases addressing searches of persons on which the Wyoming Supreme Court relied. The Court noted that the search of a person's body implicates far greater privacy interests. The Houghton case, however, involved the search of a container. The Supreme Court concluded that the rule announced in Houghton is not inconsistent with its earlier decision in United States v. Di Re,(36) holding that probable cause to search a vehicle does not justify the body search of a passenger.


The authority of the government to search a vehicle simply based on probable cause to believe it contains evidence is unique among other rules created by the Supreme Court in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. This authority is quite expansive, allowing the government to search for an object anywhere within a vehicle, including containers and other personal belongings, even those of individuals not believed to be involved in the criminal activity. Of course, officers should be aware of relevant state law because some state courts may have imposed more restrictive requirements on police motor vehicle searches by interpreting their state constitutions in a more restrictive manner.

1 267 U.S. 132 (1925).

2 471 U.S. 386 (1985).

3 See also United States v. Hamilton, 792 F.2d 837 (9th Cir. 1986); United States v. Markham, 844 F.2d 366 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 843 (1988).

4 136 F.3d 670 (9th Cir. 1998). See also United States v. Hill, 855 F.2d 664 (10th Cir. 1988).

5 Albers at 672.

6 United States v. Montgomery, 620 F.2d 753 (10th Cir. 1980); United States v. Brennan, 538 F.2d 711 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1092 (1976).

7 United States v. Whitehead, 849 F.2d 849 (4th Cir. 1988); United States v. Tartaglia, 864 F.2d 837 (D.C. Cir. 1989).

8 116 S. Ct. 2485 (1996).

9 669 A.2d 917 (Pa. 1995).

10 LaBron at 2487.

11 10 F.3d 1523 (10th Cir. 1993).

12 Ludwig at 1528 (citing U.S. v. Crabb, 952 F.2d 1245 (10th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 112 S. Ct. 1981 (1992)).

13 77 F.3d 101 (5th Cir. 1996).

14 Id. at 104, (citing California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985)).

15 For example, in Perry v. State, 821 P.2d 1273 (Wyo. 1991), the Wyoming Supreme Court held that the Wyoming Constitution permits warrantless searches of vehicles only where the government can demonstrate that obtaining a search warrant was impracticable.

16 Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). See also Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160 (1949).

17 469 U.S. 478 (1985).

18 Id. See also Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. 259 (1982).

19 Johns at 484.

20 See also Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970).

21 456 U.S. 798, 823 (1982).

22 Id. at 823-825.

23 119 S. Ct. 1297 (1999).

24 442 U.S. 753 (1979).

25 See also United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977).

26 500 U.S. 566 (1991).

27 Id. at 568-569.

28 Id. at 580.

29 Id.

30 See also United States v. Cleveland, 106 F.3d 1056 (1st Cir. 1997) (duffel bag containing controlled substance could be searched under the motor vehicle exception).

31 119 S. Ct. 1297 (1999).

32 Id.

33 956 P.2d 363 (1998).

34 Id. at 370.

35 119 S. Ct. 1297 (1999).

36 332 U.S. 581 (1948).

Law enforcement officers of other than federal jurisdiction who are interested in this article should consult their legal advisors. Some police procedures ruled permissible under federal constitutional law are of questionable legality under state law or are not permitted at all.

Special Agent Regini is a legal instructor at the FBI Academy.
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Title Annotation:Legal Digest
Author:Regini, Lisa A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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