Automobile Exception

Overview of automobile exception:
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General rule. Movable vehicles may be searched based on probable cause alone; no warrant is required. Mil. R. Evid. 315(g)(3). Chambers v. Maroney , 399 U.S. 42 (1970). The word “automobile” is not a talisman, in whose presence the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement fades away. See also Pennsylvania v. Labron , 518 U.S. 938 (1996). The auto exception is not concerned with whether police have time to obtain a warrant. It is concerned solely with whether the vehicle is “readily mobile.”

Ability to Obtain a Warrant Irrelevant.

Maryland v. Dyson , 527 U.S. 465 (1999) (per curiam). Police in Maryland waited for 13 hours for suspect to return to state and did not attempt to obtain a warrant. Supreme Court reaffirmed that automobile exception does not require a “separate finding of exigency precluding the police from obtaining a warrant.”

Rationale: (1) Automobiles are mobile; evidence could disappear by the time a warrant is obtained; and,  (2) There is a lesser expectation of privacy in a car than in a home. Scope of the search: any part of the car, including the trunk, and any containers in the car may be searched. United States v. Ross , 456 U.S. 798 (1982). Police may search any part of the car and any containers in car if police have probable cause to believe they contain evidence of a crime.

United States v. Evans , 35 M.J. 306 (C.M.A. 1992). Military police who had probable cause to search auto for drugs properly searched accused’s wallet found within vehicle. Automobile is broadly defined. California v. Carney , 471 U.S. 386 (1985). Recreational vehicle falls within auto exception unless it is clearly used solely as a residence. Timing of the search. United States v. Johns , 469 U.S. 478 (1985). Police had probable cause to seize truck but did not search it for three days. There is no requirement that search be contemporaneous with lawful seizure.

Closed containers in vehicles may also be searched.

California v. Acevedo , 500 U.S. 565 (1991). Probable cause to believe closed container located in vehicle contains evidence of crime allows warrantless search of container. This case overruled United States v. Chadwick , 433 U.S. 1 (1977), which required police to have warrant where probable cause relates solely to container within vehicle. Accord United States v. Schmitt , 33 M.J. 24 (C.M.A. 1991). No distinction between containers owned by suspect and passengers: both sorts of containers may be searched. Wyoming v. Houghton , 526 U.S. 295 (1999).

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Applies to Seizure of Automobiles Themselves. Florida v. White , 526 U.S. 559 (1999). Automobile exception applies to seizure of vehicle for purposes of forfeiture and police do not need to get a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that car is subject to seizure. If seized, police are then allowed to conduct a warrantless inventory of the seized vehicle.

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