Context:

Police were notified that Jamie Daza received a UPS package known to have marijuana inside. After Daza left the package in his apartment and left, police arrested him and placed the apartment under surveillance. Charles Acevedo entered Daza’s apartment and left with a package the same approximate size as the package of marijuana that Daza was in possession of. Police stopped Acevedo in his car, searched the vehicle, and found marijuana. Acevedo motioned to suppress the evidence that police gathered from his car, as they did not have a search warrant at the time. After the trial court denied his motion, he pled guilty but appealed their motion denial. An appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision to deny Acevedo’s motion, and ruled that the evidence be suppressed in his case. The Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s denial of the motion and Acevedo’s conviction. The court ruled that police officers do not need a warrant to search a container within an automobile so long as they have probable cause, even if there is not probable cause to search the vehicle itself. The court reasoned this by extending an exigent circumstance (losing evidence) to a container in the car. As it is a moving vehicle, if police leave to get a warrant, the evidence could be moved or disposed of easily. In doing so, the court overturned the Chadwick-Sanders Rule, developed from United States v. Chadwick (1977) and Arkansas v. Sanders (1979), which said that if police only had probable cause to search the container, they must first obtain a warrant. This decision was somewhat controversial because although the majority tried to simplify the rules, it still allows for some irrational outcomes, like allowing a container to be searched if it is within a vehicle, but not if it is outside the vehicle. Acevedo affirmed Carroll v. United States (1925).

California v. Acevedo

500 US 565 (1991)

(The Drugs in Trunk Case)


Facts: 

On October 28, 1987, Officer Coleman of the Santa Ana, Cal., Police Department received a telephone call from a federal drug enforcement agent in Hawaii. The agent informed Coleman that he had seized a package containing marijuana which was to have been delivered to the Federal Express Office in Santa Ana and which was addressed to J. R. Daza at 805 West Stevens Avenue in that city. The agent arranged to send the package to Coleman instead. Coleman then was to take the package to the Federal Express office and arrest the person who arrived to claim it.

Coleman received the package on October 29, verified its contents, and took it to the Senior Operations Manager at the Federal Express office. At about 10:30 a.m. on October 30, a man, who identified himself as Jamie Daza, arrived to claim the package. He accepted it and drove to his apartment on West Stevens. He carried the package into the apartment.

At 11:45 a.m., officers observed Daza leave the apartment and drop the box and paper that had contained the marijuana into a trash bin. Coleman at that point left the scene to get a search warrant. About 12:05 p.m., the officers saw Richard St. George leave the apartment carrying a blue knapsack which appeared to be half full. The officers stopped him as he was driving off, searched the knapsack, and found 1 1/2 pounds of marijuana.

At 12:30 p.m., respondent Charles Steven Acevedo arrived. He entered Daza's apartment, stayed for about 10 minutes, and reappeared carrying a brown paper bag that looked full. The officers noticed that the bag was the size of one of the wrapped marijuana packages sent from Hawaii. Acevedo walked to a silver Honda in the parking lot. He placed the bag in the trunk of the car and started to drive away. Fearing the loss of evidence, officers in a marked police car stopped him. They opened the trunk and the bag,and found marijuana.   

California v Acevedo 500 US 565 (1991) 

California v Acevedo 500 US 565 (1991) 

California v Acevedo 500 US 565 (1991) 

California v Acevedo 500 US 565 (1991) 

Question:

Whether the Fourth Amendment requires the police to obtain a warrant to open the sack in a movable vehicle simply because they lack probable cause to search the entire car.    

Reasoning:

The Fourth Amendment protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

A warrantless search of an automobile, based upon probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of crimein the light of an exigency arising out of the likely disappearance of the vehicle, did not contravene the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment.

The existence of exigent circumstances was to be determined at the time the automobile is seized. Given probable cause and exigent circumstances at the time the vehicle was first stopped, the Court held that the later warrantless search at the station passed constitutional muster. The validity of the later search derived from the ruling in Carrollthat an immediate search without a warrant at the moment of seizure would have been permissible. The police could search later whenever they could have searched earlier, had they so chosen. 

A warrantless search of an automobile under the Carrolldoctrine could include a search of a container or package found inside the car when such a search was supported by probable cause. "The scope of a warrantless search based on probable cause is no narrower -- and no broader -- than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant supported by probable cause." Thus, "if 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." We clarified the scope of the Carrolldoctrine as properly including a "probing search" of compartments and containers within the automobile so long as the search is supported by probable cause.

The expectation of privacy in one's vehicle is equal to one's expectation of privacy in the container, and noted that "the privacy interests in a car's trunk or glove compartment may be no less than those in a movable container."

We now agree that a container found after a general search of the automobile and a container found in a car after a limited search for the container areequally easy for the police to store and for the suspect to hide or destroy. 

The search of a paper bag intrudes far less on individual privacy than does the incursion sanctioned long ago in Carroll. In that case, prohibition agents slashed the upholstery of the automobile. This Court nonetheless found their search to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. If destroying the interior of an automobile is not unreasonable, we cannot conclude that looking inside a closed container is.

The police had probable cause to believe that the paper bag in the automobile's trunk contained marijuana. That probable cause now allows a warrantless search of the paper bag. The facts in the record reveal that the police did not have probable cause to believe that contraband was hidden in any other part of the automobile and a search of the entire vehicle would have been without probable cause and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. 

Until today, this Court has drawn 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. The protections of the Fourth Amendment must not turn on such coincidences. We thereforeinterpret Carrollas providing one rule to govern all automobile searches. The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.                   

Justice Blackmun decides California v. Acevedo

Holding:

The Fourth Amendment does not compel separate treatment for an automobile search that extends only to a container within the vehicle.

The police may search without a warrant if their search is supported by probable cause.

The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.


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Key Takeaway

When there is onlyprobable cause (PC) of evidence/contraband in a container that is in a vehicle, but not PC to search the vehicle itself, then a warrantless search of the container does not violate 4thAmendment.


Court Syllabus:

Police observed respondent Acevedo leave an apartment, known to contain marijuana, with a brown paper bag the size of marijuana packages they had seen earlier. He placed the bag in his car's trunk, and, as he drove away, they stopped the car, opened the trunk and the bag, and found marijuana. Acevedo's motion to suppress the marijuana was denied, and he pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana for sale. The California Court of Appeal held that the marijuana should have been suppressed. Finding that the officers had probable cause to believe that the bag contained drugs, but lacked probable cause to suspect that the car, itself, otherwise contained contraband, the court concluded that the case was controlled by United States v. Chadwick, in which the Court held that police could seize movable luggage or other closed containers but could not open them without a warrant, since, inter alia, a person has a heightened privacy expectation in such containers.

Held: Police, in a search extending only to a container within an automobile, may search the container without a warrant where they have probable cause to believe that it holds contraband or evidence. Carroll v. United States-- in which the Court held that a warrantless search of an automobile, based upon probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of crime in the light of an exigency arising out of the vehicle's likely disappearance, did not contravene the Fourth Amendment's Warrant Clause -- provides one rule to govern all automobile searches. 

(a) Separate doctrines have permitted the warrantless search of an automobile to include a search of closed containers found inside the car when there is probable cause to search the vehicle, but prohibited the warrantless search of a closed container located in a moving vehicle when there is probable cause to search only the container.

(b) The doctrine of stare decisis does not preclude this Court from eliminating the warrant requirement of Sanders, which was specifically undermined in Ross. The Chadwick-Sanders rule affords minimal protection to privacy interests. Police, knowing that they may open a bag only if they are searching the entire car, may search more extensively than they otherwise would in order to establish the probable cause Ross requires. And they may seize a container and hold it until they obtain a search warrant or search it without a warrant as a search incident to a lawful arrest. Moreover, the search of a paper bag intrudes far less on individual privacy than does the incursion sanctioned in Carroll, where prohibition agents slashed a car's upholstery. The Chadwick-Sanders rule also is the antithesis of a clear and unequivocal guideline and, thus, has confused courts and police officers and impeded effective law enforcement. 

(c) This holding neither extends the Carroll doctrine nor broadens the scope of permissible automobile searches. In the instant case, the probable cause the police had to believe that the bag in the car's trunk contained marijuana now allows a warrantless search of the bag, but the record reveals no probable cause to search the entire vehicle.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Blackmun, joined by Rehnquist, O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter

Concurrence: Scalia

Dissent: White

Dissent: Stevens, joined by Marshall