Container Searches

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Container searches refer to law enforcement’s inspection of items that can hold other objects, such as backpacks, suitcases, or even pockets. While it might seem simple, the legal landscape surrounding container searches is anything but, due to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures (U.S. Const. amend. IV).

U.S. v. Chadwick (1977)

In U.S. v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977), federal agents received a tip that a footlocker contained drugs. They waited until the defendants loaded the footlocker into a vehicle before arresting them and seizing the footlocker. They later opened it without a warrant and found marijuana.

The issue was whether a warrantless search of a footlocker after it was placed in a car violated the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court held it did. The rationale was that once law enforcement has control of luggage that they have probable cause to believe contains contraband, there’s no longer an exigency to justify a warrantless search (Chadwick, 1977).

California v. Acevedo (1991)

California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991) somewhat restricted Chadwick. Here, the police watched as Acevedo placed a brown paper bag into his car’s trunk. Knowing that the bag likely contained marijuana, the police stopped him, searched the trunk and bag, and found the drug.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search of an automobile, including containers within it if the police have probable cause to believe the container holds contraband or evidence.

Wyoming v. Houghton (1999)

In Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999), police pulled over a car and noticed a syringe in the driver’s pocket, suggesting drug use. They decided to search the car and the purse of a passenger, Sandra Houghton, where they found drugs.

The Supreme Court held that police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.


Container searches might seem straightforward, but as we have seen with cases like Chadwick (1977), Acevedo (1991), and Houghton (1999), they raise complex legal issues. While police have some leeway in searching containers during vehicle stops, the overriding principle is that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures remain a critical consideration.

Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/17/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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