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Iowa Supreme Court Calls SCOTUS’ Fourth Amendment Jurisprudence ‘a Mess,’ Announces Departure from Lockstep Adherence, and Rules Warrantless Seizure and Search of Defendant’s Curbside Trash Unlawful

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of Iowa ordered the suppression of evidence in a criminal case while announcing that the Iowa Constitution prohibits law enforcement from taking a homeowner’s opaque garbage bags left curbside for collection and searching through the trash contained within without a warrant.

Officer Brandon Heinz of Clear Lake, Iowa, was investigating a tip that a man named “Beef” lived near a local bar and was selling drugs. Heinz linked the pseudonym to Nicholas Dean Wright, who lived three blocks from the bar.

At around 11:30 p.m. on the night of September 11, 2017, Heinz “observed two garbage cans without lids at the edge of the alley behind Wright’s residence.” The cans contained opaque trash bags that Heinz “retrieved ... and brought them to the police department where [he] went through them.”

In the bags, Heinz found poppy seeds and stained fabric squares that tested positive for morphine and cocaine. Heinz collected Wright’s garbage again on November 6 and November 20, recovering more stained fabric squares and mail addressed to Wright.

Based on the foregoing evidence and information, Heinz sought, received, and executed a search warrant on Wright’s home. Officers “discovered a baggie containing two grams of marijuana and several capsules of Vyvanse, a prescription drug for which Wright had no prescription.”

After being indicted, Wright filed a motion to suppress the evidence located in his trash as the result of an unconstitutional search, which would also invalidate the search warrant that resulted from it. The district court denied the motion, relying on California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988) (the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit “the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home”).

Wright subsequently proceeded to trial and was convicted of possession of marijuana and separately for possession of Vyvanse without a prescription, both in violation of Iowa Code § 124.401(5). The court sentenced Wright to two days in jail, and Wright timely appealed his conviction in relation to the denial of his suppression motion. The case was affirmed by the court of appeals, and the Supreme Court of Iowa granted review. Wright challenged the warrantless seizures and searches on two separate grounds: (1) Heinz physically trespassed onto his property, so the warrantless search was in violation of article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution and (2) Heinz violated article I, section 8 by invading his expectation of privacy in his garbage bags.

Article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution is substantially similar in language to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For this reason, the Court noted it has “an interest in harmonizing our constitutional decisions ... when reasonably possible.” State v. Ochoa, 792 N.W.2d 260 (Iowa 2010). It stated in 1985 that “our interpretation of article I, section 8 has quite consistently tracked with prevailing federal interpretations in deciding search and seizure issues.” Kain v. State, 378 N.W.2d 900 (Iowa 1985).

However, the Court made it clear that it is “the final arbiter of the meaning of the Iowa Constitution,” and while it gives “respectful consideration” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s “interpretation of parallel provisions of the Federal Constitution,” it has a “duty to independently interpret the Iowa Constitution.” See State v. Brown, 930 N.W.2d 840 (Iowa 2019). The Court explained that federal constitutional law does not provide a framework that “dictates the required doctrine or minimum content of the state constitution.” See State v. Ingram, 914 N.W.2d 794 (Iowa 2018). That is, the federal and state “regimes and the cases under them may not be conflated.” Ingram. The Court declared that it “is free to interpret our constitution to provide less or more protection than the Federal Constitution.” Brown.

The Iowa Supreme Court then signaled its departure from lockstep adherence to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence by characterizing its current state as “a mess.” The Court said that normally it would “be reluctant to voice any such criticism … but members of the [U.S. Supreme] Court also are critical of its jurisprudence,” and a wide array of respected legal scholars have published articles that reach the same conclusion. (See opinion for collection of law review articles criticizing current state of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.)  

The Court declared that in light of the “uncertainty and lack of clarity in federal search and seizure jurisprudence, we conclude it is no longer tenable to follow federal precedents in lockstep.” Consequently, the Court announced that “we hold a peace officer engaged in general criminal investigation acts unreasonably under article I, section 8 when the peace officer commits a trespass against a citizen’s house, papers, or effects without first obtaining a warrant….”

Turning to the present case, the Court addressed Wright’s first argument, i.e., Heinz engaged in a warrantless seizure or search for purposes of article I, section 8. Giving the terms their “fair and ordinary meaning,” the Court determined that Heinz did indeed seize Wright’s garbage bags and their contents when he removed them from the trash bins, took physical possession of them, and brought them to the police station.

The Court determined that it is “equally apparent” that Heinz searched the bags when he opened and rummaged through them. The Court noted that a constitutional search takes place any time the government commits a physical trespass against property, regardless if it’s de minimis, together with “an attempt to find something or to obtain information.” United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012).

When determining whether a search or seizure occurred, “it is not relevant whether Wright had an expectation of privacy in the garbage bags or the contents,” stated the Court. It then announced: “To bring greater coherence to our seizure and search jurisprudence, we hold the expectation-of-privacy test is relevant only to the question of whether a seizure or search was unreasonable within the meaning of article I, section 8 and not whether a seizure or search occurred.”

The Court then determined that Wright’s opaque garbage bags are protected under article I, section 8, reasoning that they are “containers” and that they “happen to be garbage bags rather than, say, expensive luggage, is not of constitutional consequence.” See United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982). The Court also noted that Heinz obtained two personal letters belonging to Wright in the garbage bags and that letters are squarely within the class of property for which warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable. See United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984).

The Court rejected the State’s argument that Wright abandoned the garbage bags and thus police could conduct a warrantless seizure and search of them without running afoul of the Iowa Constitution. Under state law, abandonment requires proof that the owner “has voluntarily relinquished all right, title and interest in the property.” Benjamin v. Lindner Aviation, Inc., 534 N.W.2d 400 (Iowa 1995). According to the Court, abandonment also requires the relinquishment of ownership with no regard for who the next owner is.

The Court explained that Wright didn’t abandon all right, title, and interest in the garbage bags because local ordinances dictate that only a licensed trash collector under contract with the city is authorized to collect trash placed curbside. Wright agreed to transfer his garbage bags only to an authorized trash collector. He retained the right to retrieve the garbage bags at any time before they were picked up, and significantly, he had the right to exclude others from going through them prior to them being duly collected. Thus, the Court concluded that until they were collected by a licensed trash collector and “commingled with other garbage, Wright had not yet abandoned the property.”

Turning to the issue of whether Heinz physically trespassed on Wright’s papers and effects, the Court determined that he did. It stated that city ordinances make it unlawful for anyone expect authorized trash collectors to take any trash that’s been placed out for collection, and violations thereof are punishable by a fine. See Clear Lake, Iowa, Code of Ordinances § 105.11(4) and § 1.15. The Court observed that Heinz was not an authorized trash collector and thus engaged in unlawful conduct by removing and searching Wright’s garbage bags. The fact that Heinz is a police officer is irrelevant. See McClurg v. Brenton, 98 N.W. 881 (Iowa 1904) (“The mere fact that a man is an officer … gives him no more right than is possessed by the ordinary private citizen to … search for the evidences of crime, without a legal warrant procured for that purpose.”). Thus, the Court concluded that Heinz’s warrantless seizures and searches of Wright’s garbage bags were unlawful and unconstitutional physical trespasses.

The Court then addressed Wright’s expectation of privacy argument, i.e., Heinz’s actions violated article I, section 8 because they violated Wright’s reasonable expectation of privacy in his garbage bags. It acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a person doesn’t have an expectation of privacy in trash left by the curb for collection that society is prepared to accept as objectively reasonable. See Greenwood.

However, the Court rejected Greenwood and announced that “We thus join those courts that have held a warrantless search of a citizen’s trash left out for collection is unlawful” under state law as a violation of a reasonable expectation of privacy. See People v. Edwards, 458 P.2d 713 (Cal. 1969); State v. Goss, 834 A.2d 316 (N.H. 2003); State v. Hempele, 576 A.2d 793 (N.J. 1990); State v. Crane, 254 P.3d 117 (N.M. Ct. App. 2011); State v. Morris, 680 A.2d 90 (Vt. 1996); State v. Boland, 800 P.2d 1112 (Wash. 1990).

Trash contains very private details of a person’s life, the Court noted, and placing it in a closed garbage bag keeps it private. The Court stated that Wright expected his privacy would be lost only in a specific, limited way, i.e., collection by authorized trash collectors. For example, if Wright saw a neighbor rummaging through his garbage bags curbside, he would reasonably feel that his privacy was being violated and confront the neighbor, the Court reasoned.

Thus, the Court held that Heinz performed an unreasonable seizure and search in violation of article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution.

Accordingly, the Court conditionally affirmed Wright’s convictions and remanded to the district court for further proceedings with instructions to hold a hearing on the suppression motion without consideration of the unlawfully obtained evidence from the garbage bags. See: State v. Wright, 961 N.W.2d 396 (Iowa 2021). 

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Related legal cases

State v. Wright

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U.S. v. Jacobsen

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
466 U.S. 109; 104 S. Ct. 1652; 80 L. Ed. 2d 85

UNITED STATES v. BRADLEY THOMAS JACOBSEN ET AL.

No. 82-1167

December 7, 1983, Argued

April 2, 1984, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY:

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT.

DISPOSITION: 683 F.2d 296, reversed.

SYLLABUS:

During their examination of a damaged package, consisting of a cardboard box wrapped in brown paper, the employees of a private freight carrier observed a white powdery substance in the innermost of a series of four plastic bags that had been concealed in a tube inside the package. The employees then notified the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), replaced the plastic bags in the tube, and put the tube back into the box. When a DEA agent arrived, he removed the tube from the box and the plastic bags from the tube, saw the white powder, opened the bags, removed a trace of the powder, subjected it to a field chemical test, and determined it was cocaine. Subsequently, a warrant was obtained to search the place to which the package was addressed, the warrant was executed, and respondents were arrested. After respondents were indicted for possessing an illegal substance with intent to distribute, their motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that the warrant was the product of an illegal search and seizure was denied, and they were tried and convicted. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the validity of the warrant depended on the validity of the warrantless test of the white powder, that the testing constituted a significant expansion of the earlier private search, and that a warrant was required.

Held: The Fourth Amendment did not require the DEA agent to obtain a warrant before testing the white powder. Pp. 113-126.

(a) The fact that employees of the private carrier independently opened the package and made an examination that might have been impermissible for a Government agent cannot render unreasonable otherwise reasonable official conduct. Whether those employees' invasions of respondents' package were accidental or deliberate or were reasonable or unreasonable, they, because of their private character, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The additional invasions of respondents' privacy by the DEA agent must be tested by the degree to which they exceeded the scope of the private search. Pp. 113-118.

(b) The DEA agent's removal of the plastic bags from the tube and his visual inspection of their contents enabled him to learn nothing that had not previously been learned during the private search. It infringed no legitimate expectation of privacy and hence was not a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Although the agent's assertion of dominion and control over the package and its contents constituted a "seizure," the seizure was reasonable since it was apparent that the tube and plastic bags contained contraband and little else. In light of what the agent already knew about the contents of the package, it was as if the contents were in plain view. It is constitutionally reasonable for law enforcement officials to seize "effects" that cannot support a justifiable expectation of privacy without a warrant based on probable cause to believe they contain contraband. Pp. 118-122.

(c) The DEA agent's field test, although exceeding the scope of the private search, was not an unlawful "search" or "seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Governmental conduct that can reveal whether a substance is cocaine, and no other arguably "private" fact, compromises no legitimate privacy interest. United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696. The destruction of the white powder during the course of the field test was reasonable. The law enforcement interests justifying the procedure were substantial, whereas, because only a trace amount of material was involved and the property had already been lawfully detained, the warrantless "seizure" could have only a de minimis impact on any protected property interest. Under these circumstances, the safeguards of a warrant would only minimally advance Fourth Amendment interests. Pp. 122-125.

COUNSEL: David A. Strauss argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Jensen, Deputy Solicitor General Frey, and Joel M. Gershowitz.

Mark W. Peterson argued the cause and filed a brief for respondents. *



* Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W. Schmidt, James P. Manak, Howard G. Berringer, David Crump, Daniel B. Hales, William B. Randall, and Evelle J. Younger filed a brief for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

John Kenneth Zwerling filed a brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging affirmance.

JUDGES: STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C. J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in Part III of which WHITE, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 126. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 133.

OPINION: [*111] [***92] [**1655] JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

During their examination of a damaged package, the employees of a private freight carrier observed a white powdery substance, originally concealed within eight layers of wrappings. They summoned a federal agent, who removed a trace of the powder, subjected it to a chemical test and determined that it was cocaine. The question presented is whether the Fourth Amendment required the agent to obtain a warrant before he did so.

The relevant facts are not in dispute. Early in the morning of May 1, 1981, a supervisor at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Federal Express office asked the office manager to look at a package that had been damaged and torn by a forklift. They then opened the package in order to examine its contents pursuant to a written company policy regarding insurance claims.

[***93] The container was an ordinary cardboard box wrapped in brown paper. Inside the box five or six pieces of crumpled newspaper covered a tube about 10 inches long; the tube was made of the silver tape used on basement ducts. The supervisor and office manager cut open the tube, and found a series of four zip-lock plastic bags, the outermost enclosing the other three and the innermost containing about six and a half ounces of white powder. When they observed the white powder in the innermost bag, they notified the Drug Enforcement Administration. Before the first DEA agent arrived, they replaced the plastic bags in the tube and put the tube and the newspapers back into the box.

When the first federal agent arrived, the box, still wrapped in brown paper, but with a hole punched in its side and the top open, was placed on a desk. The agent saw that one end of the tube had been slit open; he removed the four plastic bags from the tube and saw the white powder. He then opened each of the four bags and removed a trace of the [*112] white substance with a knife blade. A field test made on the spot identified the substance as cocaine. n1

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n1 As the test is described in the evidence, it involved the use of three test tubes. When a substance containing cocaine is placed in one test tube after another, it will cause liquids to take on a certain sequence of colors. Such a test discloses whether or not the substance is cocaine, but there is no evidence that it would identify any other substances.


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In due course, other agents arrived, made a second field test, rewrapped the package, obtained a warrant to search the place to which it was addressed, executed the warrant, and arrested respondents. After they were indicted for the crime of possessing an illegal substance with intent to distribute, their motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that the warrant was the product of an illegal search and seizure was denied; they were tried and convicted, and appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed. 683 F.2d 296 (CA8 1982). It held that the validity of the search warrant depended on the validity of the agents' warrantless test of the white powder, n2 that [**1656] the testing constituted a significant expansion of the earlier private search, and that a warrant was required.

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n2 The Court of Appeals did not hold that the facts would not have justified the issuance of a warrant without reference to the test results; the court merely held that the facts recited in the warrant application, which relied almost entirely on the results of the field tests, would not support the issuance of the warrant if the field test was itself unlawful. HN1"'It is elementary that in passing on the validity of a warrant, the reviewing court may consider only information brought to the magistrate's attention.'" Spinelli v. United States, 393 U.S. 410, 413, n. 3 (1969) (emphasis in original) (quoting Aguilar v. Texas, 378 U.S. 108, 109, n. 1 (1964)). See Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238-239 (1983).


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As the Court of Appeals recognized, its decision conflicted with a decision of another Court of Appeals on comparable facts, United States v. Barry, 673 F.2d 912 (CA6), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 927 (1982). n3 For that reason, and because [*113] field tests play an important role in the enforcement of the narcotics laws, we granted certiorari, 460 U.S. 1021. [***94]

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n3 See also People v. Adler, 50 N. Y. 2d 730, 409 N. E. 2d 888, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1014 (1980); cf. United States v. Andrews, 618 F.2d 646 (CA10) (upholding warrantless field test without discussion), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 824 (1980).


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I

The first Clause of the Fourth Amendment provides that the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. . . ." This text protects two types of expectations, one involving "searches," the other "seizures." A "search" occurs when an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable is infringed. n4 A "seizure" of property occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property. n5 This Court has also consistently construed this protection as proscribing only governmental action; it is wholly inapplicable "to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the Government or with the participation or knowledge of any governmental official." Walter v. [*114] United States, 447 U.S. 649, 662 (1980) (BLACKMUN, J., dissenting). n6

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n4 See Illinois v. Andreas, 463 U.S. 765, 771 (1983); United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 280-281 (1983); Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 739-741 (1979); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 9 (1968).
[***LEdHR4B] [4B]LEdHR(4B)

n5 See United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983); id., at 716 (BRENNAN, J., concurring in result); Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 747-748 (1983) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment); see also United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 13-14, n. 8 (1977); Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43, 76 (1906). While the concept of a "seizure" of property is not much discussed in our cases, this definition follows from our oft-repeated definition of the "seizure" of a person within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment -- meaningful interference, however brief, with an individual's freedom of movement. See Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 696 (1981); Reid v. Georgia, 448 U.S. 438, 440, n. (1980) (per curiam); United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 551-554 (1980) (opinion of Stewart, J.); Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 50 (1979); United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878 (1975); Cupp v. Murphy, 412 U.S. 291, 294-295 (1973); Davis v. Mississippi, 394 U.S. 721, 726-727 (1969); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S., at 16, 19, n. 16.



n6 See 447 U.S., at 656 (opinion of STEVENS, J.); id., at 660-661 (WHITE, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment); United States v. Janis, 428 U.S. 433, 455-456, n. 31 (1976); Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 487-490 (1971); Burdeau v. McDowell, 256 U.S. 465 (1921).


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When the wrapped parcel involved in this case was delivered to the [**1657] private freight carrier, it was unquestionably an "effect" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Letters and other sealed packages are in the general class of effects in which the public at large has a legitimate expectation of privacy; warrantless searches of such effects are presumptively unreasonable. n7 Even when government agents may lawfully seize such a package to [***95] prevent loss or destruction of suspected contraband, the Fourth Amendment requires that they obtain a warrant before examining the contents of such a package. n8 Such a warrantless search could not be characterized as reasonable simply because, after the official invasion of privacy occurred, contraband is discovered. n9 Conversely, in this case the fact that agents of the private carrier independently opened the package and made an examination that might have been impermissible for a government agent [*115] cannot render otherwise reasonable official conduct unreasonable. The reasonableness of an official invasion of the citizen's privacy must be appraised on the basis of the facts as they existed at the time that invasion occurred.

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n7 United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 10 (1977); United States v. Van Leeuwen, 397 U.S. 249, 251 (1970); Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733 (1878); see also Walter, 447 U.S., at 654-655 (opinion of STEVENS, J.).


n8 See, e. g., United States v. Place, 462 U.S., at 701; United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 809-812 (1982); Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420, 426 (1981) (plurality opinion); Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753, 762 (1979); United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S., at 13, and n. 8; United States v. Van Leeuwen, supra. There is, of course, a well-recognized exception for customs searches; but that exception is not involved in this case.



n9 See Whiteley v. Warden, 401 U.S. 560, 567, n. 11 (1971); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 484 (1963); Rios v. United States, 364 U.S. 253, 261-262 (1960); Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 103 (1959); Miller v. United States, 357 U.S. 301, 312 (1958); United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, 595 (1948); Byars v. United States, 273 U.S. 28, 29 (1927).


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The initial invasions of respondents' package were occasioned by private action. Those invasions revealed that the package contained only one significant item, a suspicious looking tape tube. Cutting the end of the tube and extracting its contents revealed a suspicious looking plastic bag of white powder. HN5Whether those invasions were accidental or deliberate, n10 and whether they were reasonable or unreasonable, they did not violate the Fourth Amendment because of their private character.

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n10 A post-trial affidavit indicates that an agent of Federal Express may have opened the package because he was suspicious about its contents, and not because of damage from a forklift. However, the lower courts found no governmental involvement in the private search, a finding not challenged by respondents. The affidavit thus is of no relevance to the issue we decide.


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The additional invasions of respondents' privacy by the Governme

U.S. v. Ross

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
456 U.S. 798; 102 S. Ct. 2157; 72 L. Ed. 2d 572

UNITED STATES v. ROSS

No. 80-2209

March 1, 1982, Argued

June 1, 1982, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY:

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.

DISPOSITION: 210 U. S. App. D. C. 342, 655 F.2d 1159, reversed and remanded.

SYLLABUS:

Acting on information from an informant that a described individual was selling narcotics kept in the trunk of a certain car parked at a specified location, District of Columbia police officers immediately drove to the location, found the car there, and a short while later stopped the car and arrested the driver (respondent), who matched the informant's description. One of the officers opened the car's trunk, found a closed brown paper bag, and after opening the bag, discovered glassine bags containing white powder (later determined to be heroin). The officer then drove the car to headquarters, where another warrantless search of the trunk revealed a zippered leather pouch containing cash. Respondent was subsequently convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute -- the heroin and currency found in the searches having been introduced in evidence after respondent's pretrial motion to suppress the evidence had been denied. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that while the officers had probable cause to stop and search respondent's car -- including its trunk -- without a warrant, they should not have opened either the paper bag or the leather pouch found in the trunk without first obtaining a warrant.

Held: Police officers who have legitimately stopped an automobile and who have probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it may conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle that is as thorough as a magistrate could authorize by warrant. Pp. 804-825.

(a) The "automobile exception" to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement established in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, applies to searches of vehicles that are supported by probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. In this class of cases, a search is not unreasonable if based on objective facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant, even though a warrant has not actually been obtained. Pp. 804-809.

(b) However, the rationale justifying the automobile exception does not apply so as to permit a warrantless search of any movable container that is believed to be carrying an illicit substance and that is found in a public place -- even when the container is placed in a vehicle (not otherwise believed to be carrying contraband). United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1; Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753. Pp. 809-814.

(c) Where police officers have probable cause to search an entire vehicle, they may conduct a warrantless search of every part of the vehicle and its contents, including all containers and packages, that may conceal the object of the search. The scope of the search 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. For example, probable cause to believe that undocumented aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase. Pp. 817-824.

(d) The doctrine of stare decisis does not preclude rejection here of the holding in Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420, and some of the reasoning in Arkansas v. Sanders, supra. Pp. 824-825.

COUNSEL: Deputy Solicitor General Frey argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Jensen, Joshua I. Schwartz, and John Fichter De Pue.

William J. Garber argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Dennis M. Hart. *



* Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W. Schmidt, and James P. Manak filed a brief for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al., as amici curiae urging reversal.

Raymond C. Clevenger III, John F. Cooney, Arthur B. Spitzer, and Charles S. Sims filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance.

JUDGES: STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C. J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 825, and POWELL, J., post, p. 826, filed concurring opinions. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 826. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 827.

OPINION: [*799] [***578] [**2160] JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

[***LEdHR1A] [1A] In Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, the Court held that a warrantless search of an automobile stopped by police officers who had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband was not unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court in Carroll did not explicitly [*800] address the scope of the search that is permissible. In this case, we consider the extent to which police officers -- who have legitimately stopped an automobile and who have probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it -- may conduct a probing search of compartments and containers within the vehicle whose contents are not in plain view. We hold that they may conduct a search of the vehicle that is as thorough as a magistrate could authorize in a warrant "particularly describing the place to be searched." n1

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n1 "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." U.S. Const., Amdt. 4.


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I

In the evening of November 27, 1978, an informant who had previously proved to be reliable telephoned Detective Marcum of the District of Columbia Police Department and told him that an individual known as "Bandit" was selling narcotics kept in the trunk of a car parked at 439 Ridge Street. The informant stated that he had just observed "Bandit" complete a sale and that "Bandit" had told him that additional narcotics were in the trunk. The informant gave Marcum a detailed description of "Bandit" and stated that the car was a "purplish maroon" Chevrolet Malibu with District of Columbia license plates.

Accompanied by Detective Cassidy and Sergeant Gonzales, Marcum immediately drove to the area and found a maroon Malibu parked in front of 439 Ridge Street. A license check disclosed that the car was registered to Albert Ross; a computer check on Ross revealed that he fit the informant's description and used the alias "Bandit." In two passes through the neighborhood the officers did not observe anyone matching the informant's description. To avoid alerting persons on the street, they left the area.

[*801] The officers returned five minutes later and observed the maroon Malibu turning off Ridge Street onto Fourth Street. They pulled alongside the Malibu, noticed that the driver matched the informant's description, and stopped the car. Marcum and Cassidy told the driver -- later identified as Albert Ross, the respondent in this action -- to get out of the vehicle. While they searched Ross, Sergeant [***579] Gonzales discovered a bullet on the car's front seat. He searched the interior of the car and found a pistol in the glove compartment. Ross then was arrested and handcuffed. Detective Cassidy took Ross' keys and opened the trunk, where he found a closed brown paper bag. He opened the bag and discovered a number of glassine bags containing a white powder. Cassidy replaced the bag, closed the trunk, and drove the car to headquarters.

At the police station Cassidy thoroughly searched the car. In addition to the "lunch-type" brown paper bag, Cassidy found in the trunk a zippered red leather pouch. He unzipped the pouch and discovered $ 3,200 in cash. The police laboratory later determined that the powder in the paper bag was heroin. No warrant was obtained.

Ross was charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U. S. C. § 841(a). Prior to trial, he moved to suppress the heroin found in the paper bag and the currency found in the leather pouch. After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied the motion to suppress. The heroin and currency were introduced [**2161] in evidence at trial and Ross was convicted.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction. It held that the police had probable cause to stop and search Ross' car and that, under Carroll v. United States, supra, and Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, the officers lawfully could search the automobile -- including its trunk -- without a warrant. The court considered separately, however, the warrantless search of the two containers found in the trunk. On the basis of Arkansas v. Sanders, [*802] 442 U.S. 753, the court concluded that the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a container found in an automobile depends on whether the owner possesses a reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents. Applying that test, the court held that the warrantless search of the paper bag was valid but the search of the leather pouch was not. The court remanded for a new trial at which the items taken from the paper bag, but not those from the leather pouch, could be admitted. n2

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n2 The court rejected the Government's argument that the warrantless search of the leather pouch was justified as incident to respondent's arrest. App. to Pet. for Cert. 137a. The Government has not challenged this holding.


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The entire Court of Appeals then voted to rehear the case en banc. A majority of the court rejected the panel's conclusion that a distinction of constitutional significance existed between the two containers found in respondent's trunk; it held that the police should not have opened either container without first obtaining a warrant. The court reasoned:

"No specific, well-delineated exception called to our attention permits the police to dispense with a warrant to open and search 'unworthy' containers. Moreover, we believe that a rule under which the validity of a warrantless search would turn on judgments about the durability of a container would impose an unreasonable and unmanageable burden on police and courts. For these reasons, and because the Fourth Amendment [***580] protects all persons, not just those with the resources or fastidiousness to place their effects in containers that decision-makers would rank in the luggage line, we hold that the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement forbids the warrantless opening of a closed, opaque paper bag to the same extent that it forbids the warrantless opening of a small unlocked suitcase or a zippered leather pouch." 210 U. S. App. D. C. 342, 344, 655 F.2d 1159, 1161 (1981) (footnote omitted).

[*803] The en banc Court of Appeals considered, and rejected, the argument that it was reasonable for the police to open both the paper bag and the leather pouch because they were entitled to conduct a warrantless search of the entire vehicle in which the two containers were found. The majority concluded that this argument was foreclosed by Sanders.

Three dissenting judges interpreted Sanders differently. n3 Other courts also have read the Sanders opinion in different ways. n4 Moreover, disagreement concerning [**2162] the proper interpretation of Sanders was at least partially responsible for the fact that Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420, was decided last Term without a Court opinion.

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n3 Judge Tamm, the author of the original panel opinion, reiterated the view that Sanders prohibited the warrantless search of the leather pouch but not the search of the paper bag. Judge Robb agreed that this result was compelled by Sanders, although he stated that in his opinion "the right to search an automobile should include the right to open any container found within the automobile, just as the right to search a lawfully arrested prisoner carries with it the right to examine the contents of his wallet and any envelope found in his pocket, and the right to search a room includes authority to open and search all the drawers and containers found within the room." 210 U. S. App. D. C., at 363, 655 F.2d, at 1180. Judge MacKinnon concurred with Judge Tamm that Sanders did not prohibit the warrantless search of the paper bag. Concerning the leather pouch, he agreed with Judge Wilkey, who dissented on the ground that Sanders should not be applied retroactively.



n4 Many courts have held that Sanders requires that a warrant be obtained only for personal luggage and other "luggage-type" containers. See, e. g., United States v. Brown, 635 F.2d 1207 (CA6 1980); United States v. Jimenez, 626 F.2d 39 (CA7 1980). One court has held that Sanders does not apply if the police have probable cause to search an entire vehicle and not merely an isolated container within it. Cf. State v. Bible, 389 So. 2d 42 (La. 1980), vacated and remanded, 453 U.S. 918; State v. Hernandez, 408 So. 2d 911 (La. 1981); see also 210 U. S. App. D. C., at 363, 655 F.2d, at 1180 (Robb, J., dissenting).


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There is, however, no dispute among judges about the importance of striving for clarification in this area of the law. For countless vehicles are stopped on highways and public [*804] streets every day, and our cases demonstrate that it is not uncommon for police officers to have probable cause to believe that contraband may be found in a stopped vehicle. In every such case a conflict is presented between the individual's constitutionally protected interest in privacy and the public interest in effective law enforcement. No single rule of law can resolve every conflict, but our conviction that clarification is feasible led us to grant the Government's petition for certiorari in this case and to invite the parties to address the question whether the decision in Robbins should be reconsidered. 454 U.S. 891.

II

We begin with a review of the [***581] decision in Carroll itself. In the fall of 1921, federal prohibition agents obtained evidence that George Carroll and John Kiro were "bootleggers" who frequently traveled between Grand Rapids and Detroit in an Oldsmobile Roadster. n5 On December 15, 1921, the agents unexpectedly encountered Carroll and Kiro driving west on that route in that car. The officers gave pursuit, stopped the roadster on the highway, and directed Carroll and Kiro to get out of the car.

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n5 On September 29, 1921, Carroll and Kiro met the agents in Grand Rapids and agreed to sell them three cases of whiskey. The sale was not consummated, however, possibly because Carroll learned the agents' true identity. In October, the agents discovered Carroll and Kiro driving the Oldsmobile Roadster on the road to Detroit, which was known as an active center for the introduction of illegal liquor into this country. The agents followed the roadster as far as East Lansing, but there abandoned the chase.


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No contraband was visible in the front seat of the Oldsmobile and the rear portion of the roadster was closed. One of the agents raised the rumble seat but found no liquor. He raised the seat cushion and again found nothing. The officer then struck at the "lazyback" of the seat and noticed that it was "harder than upholstery ordinarily is in those backs." [*805] 267 U.S., at 174. He tore open the seat cushion and discovered 68 bottles of gin and whiskey concealed inside. No warrant ha

People v. Edwards

McClurg v. Brenton

 

 

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