Judge Gerald A. Williams discusses Supreme Court rulings regarding vehicular searches

Warrantless Searches 

Judge Gerald A. Williams discusses Supreme Court rulings regarding vehicular searches.

A driver riding a unique orange and black motorcycle had eluded local police not once, but twice. They later concluded that the motorcycle was likely stolen. A break in the case came when they saw pictures on Facebook of the motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house.

An officer located the house and saw what appeared to be a similar motorcycle covered with a white tarp, parked at the same angle and in the same location on the driveway as in the Facebook photograph. He got out of his patrol car, took pictures of the motorcycle, both with and without the tarp, ran the plate, determined it was stolen, and put the tarp back over the motorcycle.

He then waited for the suspect to come home. When he did, the officer knocked on his door, and the suspect admitted that he did not have title to the motorcycle. The officer arrested him.

Did the officer need a search warrant to remove the tarp? On May 29, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court said “yes.” Since the officer conducted a warrantless search, the defendant’s conviction for receiving stolen property was reversed.

Part of this case involves what is known as the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a search warrant. That exception comes from the 1925 case of Carrol v. United States.

In Carrol, police stopped a car they believed contained illegal liquor. They conducted a warrantless search, found the liquor, and arrested the drivers. In that case and at that time, the Supreme Court said that searching a vehicle or a boat was different than searching a building because they could be quickly moved out of the jurisdiction where a warrant could be issued.

Consequently, the automobile exception was born. In spite of modern communication and the availability of telephonic search warrants, the concept remains good law.

However, the Supreme Court, by a vote of eight to one, declined to extend the automobile to a parked motorcycle covered with a tarp. The court held that the automobile exception did allow law enforcement agents to essentially trespass on private property.


Can the Police also Search a Passenger’s Property?

During a traffic stop, a police officer notices a hypodermic syringe in the driver’s shirt pocket. The driver admits to taking illegal drugs. In his search of the car for drugs, can the officer also search the passenger’s purse?

In 1999, the Supreme Court said the answer was yes in the case of Wyoming v. Houghton. Then and now, the general rule is that if law enforcement agent have probable cause to search a car, they may inspect a passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing what they are searching for.

The reverse may not be true. In 2017, an appellate court in Maryland held that finding drugs on a passenger did not allow the police to conduct a warrantless search of the driver’s trunk.

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