Summation of Automobile Rules

  • General rule, automobiles are likely to be searched and deemed valid.

Four ways to search a car:

  1. Inventory (See Gipson)
    1. Elements
      1. Valid impoundment
      2. Valid noncriminal purpose
      3. Standard procedures
    2. Scope: All areas if the procedure says it is fine.
  2. Terry (See Long)
    1. Elements
      1. Valid stop of the car
      2. Reasonable suspicion of a weapon
    2. Scope: Passenger compartment for a weapon
    3. Limits: purpose of officer safety and can only search places where a weapon may be located within reach of a passenger.
  3. Automobile Exception (See Acevedo below)
    1. Elements
      1. Must have probable cause the automobile contains evidence of a crime
    2. Scope: extends only to areas where there is probable cause the item is located there
    3. Limits: See the rule above.
  4. Search Incident to Arrest (See Gant)
    1. Elements:
      1. Once there is a lawful arrest:
        1. The arrestee is “unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,”
        2. “reasonable to believe” the vehicle contains evidence of the crime of arrest.
    2. Scope: Passenger compartment and any containers there.
    3. Limits: focus only on the rules above.

Search of Car Incident to Arrest

Robinson. v. State

754 S.E.2d 864 (S.C. 2014).

Charged with armed robbery. The trial court did not exclude the evidence. Thus, Robinson appealed.


Whether the search of the vehicle was unconstitutional.

[P]olice may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if (1) the arrestee is “unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,” or (2) it is “reasonable to believe” the vehicle contains evidence of the crime of arrest.

Absent the above, a warrant or exception is required.


Lawful search, affirmed.


Four men robbed a local bar at 9:45. Police showed up at 9:51 and a “Be on the Lookout” (BOLO) notice was sent out describing the four individuals. An officer who heard the BOLO found a parked vehicle by the church a few minutes later and discovered four occupants inside. Calling for backup, him and other officers approached the vehicle, removed and frisked the passengers, and discovered a weapon in plain view on the car floor. At this point, the officers put the occupants under arrest and conducted a search of the car. Eventually, they found a way into the trunk of the car where they found additional evidence pointing to an armed robbery.


Under the facts above, the search was of a passenger compartment (trunk), and the officers had a reasonable belief the trunk contained evidence of the crime for the arrest. This reasonable belief arose because the BOLO was sent out, the occupants fit the description, and a weapon was found in plain view. Thus, the officers had additional reason to believe more weapons and evidence would be located within the vehicle.

Additional Notes

The above is one method of searching cars: SITA.

Another method of searching cars is outlined in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925) called the Carroll-Chambers exception. Essentially, the rule says there is no need for a warrant to search a car if there is probable cause the vehicle contains evidence of contraband. The reasoning? Vehicles are moveable which could create an exigent circumstance that the evidence will be moved or destroyed.

We have already discussed another method of searching cars: conducting a Terry frisk. If the officers have a proper basis for stopping a car, they can ask the occupants to step out of the car, and search passenger compartments for a weapon (upon reasonable suspicion).

California v. Carney and State v. Otto

471 U.S. 386 (1985); 840 N.W.2d 589 (N.D. 2013).

Officer received information about a man in a motor home exchanging sex for drugs. Once the officers arrived to investigate, the man stepped out of his motor home, the officers entered, and found the drugs.

A mobile home is considered a car, so the automobile exception applies if there is probable cause. Here, there was probable cause because they had an informant then corroborated the evidence.

Closed Containers in Cars

Closed containers typically require a warrant to search. Vehicles, under the Carroll-Chambers rule do not. So, can officers search a closed container within a vehicle under the Carroll-Chambers rule?

California v. Acevedo

500 U.S. 565 (1991).


Whether the Fourth Amendment requires the police to obtain a warrant to open the sack in a moveable vehicle simply because they lack probable cause to search the entire car.


Probable cause of contraband in a container within a vehicle is sufficient to search the locations where the container is suspected to be.


An agent in Hawaii intercepted a package in Hawaii containing contraband that was meant to be shipped to California. The officer in California received the package with the intent to arrest the person who picks up the package. After the package is picked up and taken to his home, several visitors arrived and leave shortly thereafter (including Acevedo). Acevedo left with a brown paper bag, puts it in his trunk, and begins to leave. Fearing the loss of the evidence, the officers pulled Acevedo over, popped the trunk, and discovered the contraband.


The defense relies on Sanders which argues that luggage is private and cannot be searched.

However, the response is that this case is more like a car, so the automobile exception permits the search. See Ross. So the question is whether the situation is more like Sanders or Ross.

Here, the court says this situation is more like Ross because the reason for having a Carroll-Chambers exception applies, fear of losing the evidence.

The dissent argues this case is more like Sanders, luggage receives more protection. Additionally, the dissent dislikes the distinction between the stop on the street (requiring a warrant) verses the car (not requiring a warrant)—the difference being only a few seconds.


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