California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991)

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us once again to consider the so-called “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and its application to the search of a closed container in the trunk of a car. 


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.

Respondent was charged in state court with possession of marijuana for sale, in violation of Cal. Health & Safety Code Ann. § 11359.  He moved to suppress the marijuana found in the car.  The motion was denied.  He then pleaded guilty, but appealed the denial of the suppression motion.

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, concluded that the marijuana found in the paper bag in the car’s trunk should have been suppressed.  The court concluded that the officers had probable cause to believe that the paper bag contained drugs, but lacked probable cause to suspect that Acevedo’s car, itself, otherwise contained contraband.  Because the officers’ probable cause was directed specifically at the bag, the court held that the case was controlled by United States v. Chadwick, rather than by United States v. Ross.  Although the court agreed that the officers could seize the paper bag, it held that, under Chadwick, they could not open the bag without first obtaining a warrant for that purpose.  The court then recognized “the anomalous nature” of the dichotomy between the rule in Chadwick and the rule in Ross.  That dichotomy dictates that, if there is probable cause to search a car, then the entire car— including any closed container found therein—may be searched without a warrant, but if there is probable cause only as to a container in the car, the container may be held, but not searched, until a warrant is obtained.

The Supreme Court of California denied the State’s petition for review.  On May 14, 1990, JUSTICE O’CONNOR stayed enforcement of the Court of Appeal’s judgment pending the disposition of the State’s petition for certiorari, and, if that petition were granted, the issuance of the mandate of this Court.

We granted certiorari 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 in Chadwick. 


The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Contemporaneously with the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, the First Congress, and, later, the Second and Fourth Congresses, distinguished between the need for a warrant to search for contraband concealed in “a dwelling house or similar place” and the need for a warrant to search for contraband concealed in a movable vessel.  In Carroll, this Court established an exception to the warrant requirement for moving vehicles, for it recognized

“a necessary 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.”

It therefore 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 likely disappearance of the vehicle did not contravene the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court refined the exigency requirement in Chambers v. Maroney, when it held that the existence of exigent circumstances was to be determined at the time the automobile is seized.  The car search at issue in Chambers took place at the police station, where the vehicle was immobilized, some time after the driver had been arrested.  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 Carroll that an immediate search without a warrant at the moment of seizure would have been permissible.  The Court reasoned in Chambers that the police could search later whenever they could have searched earlier, had they so chosen.  Following Chambers, if the police have probable cause to justify a warrantless seizure of an automobile on a public roadway, they may conduct either an immediate or a delayed search of the vehicle.

In United States v. Ross, decided in 1982, we held that a warrantless search of an automobile under the Carroll doctrine could include a search of a container or package found inside the car when such a search was supported by probable cause.  The warrantless search of Ross’ car occurred after an informant told the police that he had seen Ross complete a drug transaction using drugs stored in the trunk of his car.  The police stopped the car, searched it, and discovered in the trunk a brown paper bag containing drugs.  We decided that the search of Ross’ car was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment:

“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.”  In Ross, therefore, we clarified the scope of the Carroll doctrine as properly including a “probing search” of compartments and containers within the automobile so long as the search is supported by probable cause.  In addition to this clarification, Ross distinguished the Carroll doctrine from the separate rule that governed the search of closed containers.  The Court had announced this separate rule, unique to luggage and other closed packages, bags, and containers, in United States v. Chadwick, In Chadwick, federal narcotics agents had probable cause to believe that a 200-pound double-locked footlocker contained marijuana.  The agents tracked the locker as the defendants removed it from a train and carried it through the station to a waiting car.  As soon as the defendants lifted the locker into the trunk of the car, the agents arrested them, seized the locker, and searched it.  In this Court, the United States did not contend that the locker’s brief contact with the automobile’s trunk sufficed to make the Carroll doctrine applicable.  Rather, the United States urged that the search of movable luggage could be considered analogous to the search of an automobile.

The Court rejected this argument because, it reasoned, a person expects more privacy in his luggage and personal effects than he does in his automobile.  Moreover, it concluded that, as “may often not be the case when automobiles are seized,” secure storage facilities are usually available when the police seize luggage.

In Arkansas v. Sanders (1979), the Court extended Chadwick’s rule to apply to a suitcase actually being transported in the trunk of a car.  In Sanders, the police had probable cause to believe a suitcase contained marijuana.  They watched as the defendant placed the suitcase in the trunk of a taxi and was driven away.  The police pursued the taxi for several blocks, stopped it, found the suitcase in the trunk, and searched it.  Although the Court had applied the Carroll doctrine to searches of integral parts of the automobile itself, (indeed, in Carroll, contraband whiskey was in the upholstery of the seats), it did not extend the doctrine to the warrantless search of personal luggage “merely because it was located in an automobile lawfully stopped by the police.”  Again, the Sanders majority stressed the heightened privacy expectation in personal luggage, and concluded that the presence of luggage in an automobile did not diminish the owner’s expectation of privacy in his personal items.

In Ross, the Court endeavored to distinguish between Carroll, which governed the Ross automobile search, and Chadwick, which governed the Sanders automobile search.  It held that the Carroll doctrine covered searches of automobiles when the police had probable cause to search an entire vehicle, but that the Chadwick doctrine governed searches of luggage when the officers had probable cause to search only a container within the vehicle.  Thus, in a Ross situation, the police could conduct a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment without obtaining a warrant, whereas in a Sanders situation, the police had to obtain a warrant before they searched.

JUSTICE STEVENS is correct, of course, that Ross involved the scope of an automobile search.  Ross held that closed containers encountered by the police during a warrantless search of a car pursuant to the automobile exception could also be searched.  Thus, this Court in Ross took the critical step of saying that closed containers in cars could be searched without a warrant because of their presence within the automobile.  Despite the protection that Sanders purported to extend to closed containers, the privacy interest in those closed containers yielded to the broad scope of an automobile search. 


The facts in this case closely resemble the facts in Ross.  In Ross, the police had probable cause to believe that drugs were stored in the trunk of a particular car.  Here, the California Court of Appeal concluded that the police had probable cause to believe that respondent was carrying marijuana in a bag in his car’s trunk.  Furthermore, for what it is worth, in Ross, as here, the drugs in the trunk were contained in a brown paper bag.

This Court in Ross rejected Chadwick’s distinction between containers and cars.  It concluded that 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.”  It also recognized that it was arguable that the same exigent circumstances that permit a warrantless search of an automobile would justify the warrantless search of a movable container.  In deference to the rule of Chadwick and Sanders, however, the Court put that question to one side.  It concluded that the time and expense of the warrant process would be misdirected if the police could search every cubic inch of an automobile until they discovered a paper sack, at which point the Fourth Amendment required them to take the sack to a magistrate for permission to look inside.  We now must decide the question deferred in Ross: 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.  We conclude that it does not. 


Dissenters in Ross asked why the suitcase in Sanders was “more private, less difficult for police to seize and store, or in any other relevant respect more properly subject to the warrant requirement, than a container that police discover in a probable cause search of an entire automobile?”

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 are equally easy for the police to store and for the suspect to hide or destroy.  In fact, we see no principled distinction in terms of either the privacy expectation or the exigent circumstances between the paper bag found by the police in Ross and the paper bag found by the police here.  Furthermore, by attempting to distinguish between a container for which the police are specifically searching and a container which they come across in a car, we have provided only minimal protection for privacy, and have impeded effective law enforcement.

The line between probable cause to search a vehicle and probable cause to search a package in that vehicle is not always clear, and separate rules that govern the two objects to be searched may enable the police to broaden their power to make warrantless searches and disserve privacy interests.  We noted this in Ross in the context of a search of an entire vehicle.  Recognizing that, under Carroll, the “entire vehicle itself . . . could be searched without a warrant,” we concluded that

“prohibiting police from opening immediately a container in which the object of the search is most likely to be found, and instead forcing them first to comb the entire vehicle, would actually exacerbate the intrusion on privacy interests.”

At the moment when officers stop an automobile, it may be less than clear whether they suspect with a high degree of certainty that the vehicle contains drugs in a bag or simply contains drugs.  If the police know that they may open a bag only if they are actually searching the entire car, they may search more extensively than they otherwise would in order to establish the general probable cause required by Ross.

Such a situation is not far-fetched.  In United States v. Johns, customs agents saw two trucks drive to a private airstrip and approach two small planes.  The agents drew near the trucks, smelled marijuana, and then saw in the backs of the trucks packages wrapped in a manner that marijuana smugglers customarily employed.  The agents took the trucks to headquarters and searched the packages without a warrant.  Relying on Chadwick, the defendants argued that the search was unlawful.  The defendants contended that Ross was inapplicable because the agents lacked probable cause to search anything but the packages themselves, and supported this contention by noting that a search of the entire vehicle never occurred.  We rejected that argument, and found Chadwick and Sanders inapposite because the agents had probable cause to search the entire body of each truck, although they had chosen not to do so.  We cannot see the benefit of a rule that requires law enforcement officers to conduct a more intrusive search in order to justify a less intrusive.

To the extent that the Chadwick-Sanders rule protects privacy, its protection is minimal.  Law enforcement officers may seize a container and hold it until they obtain a search warrant.

“Since the police, by hypothesis, have probable cause to seize the property, we can assume that a warrant will be routinely forthcoming in the overwhelming majority of cases.”

And the police often will be able to search containers without a warrant, despite the Chadwick-Sanders rule, as a search incident to a lawful arrest.  In New York v. Belton, the Court said:

“We hold that, when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.  It follows from this conclusion that the police may also examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment.”

Under Belton, the same probable cause to believe that a container holds drugs will allow the police to arrest the person transporting the container and search it.

Finally, 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.  In light of the minimal protection to privacy afforded by the Chadwick-Sanders rule, and our serious doubt whether that rule substantially serves privacy interests, we now hold that the Fourth Amendment does not compel separate treatment for an automobile search that extends only to a container within the vehicle. 


The Chadwick-Sanders rule not only has failed to protect privacy, but it has also confused courts and police officers and impeded effective law enforcement.  The conflict between the Carroll doctrine cases and the Chadwick-Sanders line has been criticized in academic commentary.

“These two lines of authority cannot be completely reconciled, and thus how one comes out in the container-in-the-car situation depends upon which line of authority is used as a point of departure.”

The discrepancy between the two rules has led to confusion for law enforcement officers.  For example, when an officer, who has developed probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains drugs, begins to search the vehicle and immediately discovers a closed container, which rule applies?  The defendant will argue that the fact that the officer first chose to search the container indicates that his probable cause extended only to the container and that Chadwick and Sanders therefore require a warrant.  On the other hand, the fact that the officer first chose to search in the most obvious location should not restrict the propriety of the search.  The Chadwick rule, as applied in Sanders, has devolved into an anomaly such that the more likely the police are to discover drugs in a container, the less authority they have to search it.  We have noted the virtue of providing clear and unequivocal guidelines to the law enforcement profession.  The Chadwick-Sanders rule is the antithesis of a ‘clear and unequivocal’ guideline.

JUSTICE STEVENS argues that the decisions of this Court evince a lack of confusion about the automobile exception.  The first case cited by the dissent, United States v. Place, however, did not involve an automobile at all.  We considered in Place the temporary detention of luggage in an airport.  Not only was no automobile involved, but the defendant, Place, was waiting at the airport to board his plane, rather than preparing to leave the airport in a car.  Any similarity to Sanders, in which the defendant was leaving the airport in a car, is remote, at best.  Place had nothing to do with the automobile exception, and is inapposite.

Nor does JUSTICE STEVENS’s citation to Oklahoma v. Castleberry support its contention.  Castleberry presented the same question about the application of the automobile exception to the search of a closed container that we face here.  In Castleberry, we affirmed by an equally divided court.  That result illustrates this Court’s continued struggle with the scope of the automobile exception, rather than the absence of confusion in applying it.

JUSTICE STEVENS also argues that law enforcement has not been impeded because the Court has decided 29 Fourth Amendment cases since Ross in favor of the government.  In each of these cases, the government appeared as the petitioner.  The dissent fails to explain how the loss of 29 cases below, not to mention the many others which this Court did not hear, did not interfere with law enforcement.  The fact that the state courts and the federal courts of appeals have been reversed in their Fourth Amendment holdings 29 times since 1982 further demonstrates the extent to which our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has confused the courts.

Most important, with the exception of Johns and Texas v. Brown, the Fourth Amendment cases cited by the dissent do not concern automobiles or the automobile exception.  From Carroll through Ross, this Court has explained that automobile searches differ from other searches.  The dissent fails to acknowledge this basic principle, and so misconstrues and misapplies our Fourth Amendment case law.

The Chadwick dissenters predicted that the container rule would have “the perverse result of allowing fortuitous circumstances to control the outcome” of various searches.  The rule also was so confusing that, within two years after Chadwick, this Court found it necessary to expound on the meaning of that decision and explain its application to luggage in general.  Again, dissenters bemoaned the “inherent opaqueness” of the difference between the Carroll and Chadwick principles, and noted “the confusion to be created for all concerned.”  Three years after Sanders, we returned in Ross to “this troubled area,” in order to assert that Sanders had not cut back on Carroll.

Although we have recognized firmly that the doctrine of stare decisis serves profoundly important purposes in our legal system, this Court has overruled a prior case on the comparatively rare occasion when it has bred confusion or been a derelict or led to anomalous results.  Sanders was explicitly undermined in Ross, and the existence of the dual regimes for automobile searches that uncover containers has proved as confusing as the Chadwick and Sanders dissenters predicted.  We conclude that it is better to adopt one clear-cut rule to govern automobile searches and eliminate the warrant requirement for closed containers set forth in Sanders. 


The interpretation of the Carroll doctrine set forth in Ross now applies to all searches of containers found in an automobile.  In other words, the police may search without a warrant if their search is supported by probable cause.  The Court in Ross put it this way:

“The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile . . . 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.”

It went on to note:  “Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab.”  We reaffirm that principle.  In the case before us, 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.

Our holding today neither extends the Carroll doctrine nor broadens the scope of the permissible automobile search delineated in Carroll, Chambers, and Ross.  It remains a “cardinal principle that ‘searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.”

We held in Ross: “The exception recognized in Carroll is unquestionably one that is specifically established and well delineated.”  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 therefore interpret Carroll as 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.

The judgment of the California Court of Appeal is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. 

It is so ordered.

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