United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798; 102 S. Ct. 2157; 72 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1982)

United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798; 102 S. Ct. 2157; 72 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1982)

Facts—Acting on information supplied by a reliable informant, the police stopped a described automobile and individual, opened the car’s trunk, and discovered heroin. The police then drove the car to the police station where a warrantless search revealed a zippered leather pouch containing over $3,000 in cash. Ross was charged with possession with intent to distribute. He was convicted in the District Court, but the verdict was reversed by a Court of Appeals.

Question—Can the police, who have legitimately stopped an automobile with probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it, conduct a probing search of compartments and containers within the vehicle whose contents are not in plain view?


ReasonsJ. Stevens (6–3). Since its earliest days, Congress recognized the impracticability of securing a warrant in cases involving the transportation of contraband goods, and in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), the Court emphasized the importance of the requirement that officers have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband.

“Probable cause . . . must be based on objective facts that could justify the issuance of a warrant by a magistrate and not merely on the subjective good faith of the police officers.” A lawful search of a fixed premise generally extends to the entire area in which the object of the search may be found and is not limited by the possibility that separate acts of entry or opening may be required to complete the search.

“A warrant to search a vehicle would support a search of every part of the vehicle that might contain the object of the search. When a legitimate search is under way, and when its purpose and its limits have been precisely defined, nice distinctions between closets, drawers, and containers, in the case of a home, or between glove compartments, upholstered seats, trunks, and wrapped packages, in the case of a vehicle, must give way to the interest in the prompt and efficient completion of the task at hand. We hold that the scope of the

warrantless search authorized is no broader and no narrower than a magistrate could legitimately authorize by warrant. 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.”

J. Marshall argued in dissent that “The majority not only repeals all realistic limits on warrantless automobile searches, it repeals the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement itself. By equating a police officer’s estimation of probable cause with a magistrate’s, the Court utterly disregards the value of a neutral and detached magistrate.”

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