UNITED STATES V. ROSS, 456 U. S. 798 (1982)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982)

United States v. Ross

No. 80-09

Argued March 1, 1982

Decided June 1, 1982

456 U.S. 798


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. 456 U. S. 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. 456 U. S. 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. 456 U. S. 809-814.

Page 456 U. S. 799

(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. 456 U. S. 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. 456 U. S. 824-825.

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

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. 456 U. S. 825, and POWELL, J., post, p. 456 U. S. 826, filed concurring opinions. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion,post, p. 456 U. S. 826. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 456 U. S. 827.

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