Searching bags or containers in your car without a warrant? Automobile Exception? CA v. Acevedo

California police officers saw Charles Acevedo enter an apartment known to contain several packages of marijuana and leave ten minutes later carrying a paper bag approximately the same size as one of the packages.
Acevedo placed the bag in the trunk of his Honda and began to drive away. The officers stopped the car, searched the bag, and found marijuana.

The Supreme Court had ruled previously that officers can thoroughly search an automobile if they have probable cause to believe there is evidence somewhere in the vehicle ( U.S. v. Ross ), and also that officers need a warrant to search a closed container ( U.S. v. Chadwick ). The California Court of Appeal decided that the latter case was more relevant. Since the officers only had probable cause to believe the bag contained evidence – not the car generally – they could not open the bag without a search warrant.

The Supreme Court ruled that the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s general search-warrant requirement is broad enough to cover a situation where the police only have probable cause to believe there is evidence in a specific movable container within the car. The Court noted that the warrant requirement previously had depended on 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.” In place of that uncertain distinction, the Court adopted a single rule: “The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.”

Read more here: California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991),

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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