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The 4th: Automobile

The U.S. Supreme Court has carved out an exception to the warrant requirement for motor vehicles for two reasons: 1) individuals have a lower expectation of privacy than homes; and 2) motor vehicles are easily movable and risk the destruction or removal of evidence.[1]

This means that if an officer has probable cause to believe a crime has occurred and that there is evidence of that crime in the vehicle, then he may search that vehicle for evidence of the crime.[2]

However, an officer may not unreasonably extend a traffic stop while searching for probable cause or reasonable suspicion.[3]

Case Law

“The automobile exception to requiring a search warrant exists in recognition of ‘the ready mobility of automobiles and the potential that evidence may be lost before a warrant is obtained’ and ‘the lessened expectation of privacy in motor vehicles which are subject to government regulation.’”

State v. Morris, 411 S.C. 571, 580 (2015).

“We find the record supports the conclusion that Vinesett had probable cause to search the entire vehicle. The scope of a ‘warrantless search ... is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.’ Although Morris argues that because Vinesett failed to find drugs in the passenger compartment of the vehicle, he lacked probable cause to search the trunk, this contention mistakes the object for which Vinesett had probable cause to search. Vinesett was not simply looking for burnt marijuana based on the smell he detected at the inception of the stop. In our view, it is clear the object of his search was raw marijuana. Vinesett observed other indicators of drug possession or trafficking that led him to the reasonable belief that contraband would be found within the vehicle. The unrolled and hollowed Phillies Blunt cigars in the console suggest the future intent of marijuana use, not recent use. Additionally, Morris and Nichols told inconsistent stories, drove a rental car, and had several empty cans of Red Bull. Although those factors appear banal independently, cumulatively they indicated drug trafficking to Vinesett, based on his training and expertise. Accordingly, under our any evidence standard of review, we find the record supports the conclusion Vinesett reasonably believed the contraband he suspected could be found in the trunk of the vehicle. We therefore hold the court of appeals did not err in affirming the trial court's finding Vinesett had probable cause to search the entire vehicle.”

State v. Morris, 411 S.C. 571, 581 (2015) (citations omitted).

“Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a seizure of persons within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, an automobile stop is ‘subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be unreasonable under the circumstances.’ Where probable cause exists to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, the decision to stop the automobile is reasonable per se. The police may also stop and briefly detain a vehicle if they have a reasonable suspicion that the occupants are involved in criminal activity.”

State v. Pichardo, 367 S.C. 84, 97–98 (Ct. App. 2005) (citations and internal quotations omitted).

[1] Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925).

[2] State v. Morris, 411 S.C. 571, 581 (2015).

[3] State v. Pichardo, 367 S.C. 84, 97–98 (Ct. App. 2005).


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