456 U.S. 798 (1982), argued 1 Mar. 1982, decided 1 June 1982 by vote of 6 to 3; Stevens for the Court, White and Marshall, joined by Brennan, in dissent. To what extent can the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment justify warrantless searches of containers that are placed in automobiles? The Supreme Court first addressed this issue in United States v. Chadwick (1977). Speaking for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Warren Burger said in that decision that the mere fact that a footlocker, which police officers had probable cause to believe contained narcotics, was placed in the trunk of a car did not render the automobile exception applicable. The Court reaffirmed the general principle that closed packages and containers may not be searched without warrant because a person's expectation of privacy in personal luggage is substantially greater than in an automobile.
Not all police suspicions are directed at a specific container, however. In Robbins v. California (1981), a companion case to New York v. Belton (1981), a plurality of the Court invalidated the warrantless search of a closed package found in a car trunk. Only after Robbins, the driver of the automobile, was placed in the police car did the officers search the trunk and discover two packages wrapped in green plastic. The police unwrapped the packages and found marijuana inside. Justice Potter Stewart said that unless the contents of such a package are in plain view, it could not be searched without a warrant.
The rationale of Robbins was abandoned a year later in Ross. Acting on a tip from a reliable informant that a person known as “Bandit” was selling drugs from the trunk of his car, District of Columbia police stopped the car and arrested the driver. In the trunk they found a closed brown paper bag that contained a white powder later determined to be heroin. At headquarters another search of the trunk revealed a zippered red leather pouch containing cash. Ross's motion to suppress the evidence was denied and he was convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
Justices John Paul Stevens, writing for six members of the Court, held that police may search compartments and containers within a vehicle even though the contents are not in plain view, so long as the search is based on probable cause, the same standard needed to obtain a search warrant. Stevens said that the “practical consequences of the automobile exception would be largely nullified if the permissible scope of a warrantless search of an automobile did not include containers and packages found inside the vehicle” (p. 820). The Court's holding in Ross broadened the automobile exception established in Carroll v. United States (1925). Ross not only held the automobile exception to the minimum probable cause standard for searching containers but effectively placed the power to determine probable cause in the hands of the police rather than a magistrate.
Some observers maintained that with the retirement of Justice Stewart, who wrote the majority opinions in both Belton and Robbins, and the appointment of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Court, the controversy about warrantless container searches may have ended. The subsequent appointments of Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy will no doubt confirm that result. Police may now conduct warrantless searches incident to an arrest of containers discovered in an automobile and must only demonstrate that they had probable cause to believe contraband was located somewhere in the car. Since police have been granted the power to carry out warrantless searches of automobiles and containers therein so long as they meet the probable cause standard, it is unlikely that they would find it necessary to get a warrant to search a particular container located in an automobile.