California v. Acevedo
500 U.S. 565, 111 S. Ct. 1982, 114 L. Ed.2d 619 (1991)

  • The police in Hawaii interdicted a package containing drugs that had been mailed to a guy named Daza. They alerted the police in California and let the package go. Daza picked it up and brought it to his house.
  • When Daza left his house, the police arrested him. Then they waited and watched while Acevedo entered Daza’s house and left with a suspicious package. As he drove off with the package, the police stopped him, searched his car, and found the drugs in the package. He was arrested and charged with drug possession.
  • The Trial Court convicted Acevedo of drug possession. He appealed.
    • Acevedo argued that the police did not have a warrant to search his vehicle, therefore it was an unreasonable search and a violation of the 4th Amendment.
      • The prosecution countered that Carroll v. United States (267 U.S. 132 (1925)) held that there are privacy interests in an automobile, but the ready mobility of the automobile justifies a lesser degree of protection of those interests.
        • In general, vehicles can be searched without a warrant if there is probable cause.
    • Acevedo argued that even if a warrantless vehicle search was permitted, the drugs were inside of his luggage, and therefore the question should be whether a warrantless luggage search was reasonable, regardless of whether the luggage was in a car or not.
      • On the street, even with probable cause the police can’t search luggage. They must seize it and get a warrant.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The prosecutor appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court and upheld the conviction.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the 4th Amendment does not require a search warrant in order to search a container within a vehicle, provided that they have probable cause to believe that the container is in the vehicle.
      • The reasoning is that since cars move, if the police go and get a search warrant, the car will be long gone by the time they get back.
      • See United States v. Chadwick (433 U.S. 1 (1977)) and Arkansas v. Sanders (442 U.S. 753 (1979)), which defined the Chadwick-Sanders Rule, which the Court overruled in this decision.
    • The Court got around the fact that you generally have to have a search warrant to search luggage by saying that “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.”
      • See United States v. Ross (456 U.S. 798 (1982)).
      • But isn’t there a difference between searching a car and opening a package that happens to be in the car, and searching a car specifically because you are looking to search the package?
  • In a dissent it was argued that you could not have stopped Acevedo on the street and made a warrantless search of the package. You could also not have made a warrantless search of the vehicle because you did not have probable cause to search the vehicle (there was probable cause to search the package, but not the entire vehicle). So how could it be that putting the package in the car somehow makes it ok?
  • Wouldn’t it have been possible for the police to take the package out of the car and hold it until they got a warrant, similar to their procedure when they stop someone on the street carrying a package? Was there really a good reason to change the law in this manner?
  • Part of the reasoning in this case was that there was an inconsistency in the law. If there was probable cause that a car contained contraband, the police could search the car and open any containers therein, but if they had probable cause that a container in a car contained contraband, they needed a warrant to open the container. However, after this case, there was still an inconsistency. Now if the police have probable cause that a container contains contraband the police can search that container without a warrant if it is in a car, but not otherwise.