The Motor Vehicle Exception

By Hendrie, Edward | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 2005 | Go to article overview

The Motor Vehicle Exception


Hendrie, Edward, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


There is a presumption that a search conducted under the authority of a search warrant is reasonable. (1) Conversely, a search conducted without a search warrant is presumed unreasonable. (2) The presumption of unreasonableness can be rebutted through an applicable exception to the search warrant requirement. One of those exceptions is known as the motor vehicle exception. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if an officer has probable cause to believe that evidence or contraband is located in a motor vehicle, he may search the area of the vehicle he reasonably believes contains that evidence without a search warrant to the same degree as if he had a warrant. (3) The scope of the search is limited only by what the officer has probable cause to search for and may encompass the entire vehicle, including the trunk. The motor vehicle exception is based upon the reduced expectation of privacy that citizens have in their motor vehicles because of the pervasive regulation to which they are subjected and the fact that the mobility of vehicles present an inherent exigency. (4)

In addition to the motor vehicle exception, there are other exceptions to the search warrant requirement that allow an officer to search all or part of a motor vehicle. Those exceptions allow officers to 1) search the passenger compartment (but not the trunk) of a suspect's vehicle incident to his arrest; (5) 2) frisk the passenger compartment (but not the trunk) of an automobile for weapons upon reasonable suspicion that a weapon may be there; (6) 3) inventory an impounded vehicle, including items in the trunk, pursuant to standardized agency regulations; (7) or 4) search a motor vehicle upon the consent of the person who has the actual or apparent authority and control over that vehicle. (8) While these listed exceptions can be applied to motor vehicles, they are not limited in their application to motor vehicles, as is the motor vehicle exception.

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Probable Cause

To search under the motor vehicle exception, an officer must have probable cause. The Supreme Court has stated that "probable cause is a fluid concept--turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts--not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules." (9) Probable cause is not a "one size fits all" standard. In fact, probable cause is a range that occupies a zone (10) that is assessed under the totality of the circumstances. (11)

The seminal motor vehicle exception case is Carroll v. United States. (12) The Carroll decision illustrates just how low the probable cause standard is when conducting a warrantless search under the motor vehicle exception. In Carroll, federal prohibition agents acting undercover had negotiated for the purchase of illegal whiskey in Grand Rapids from the two defendants, Kiro and Carroll. The sale was never consummated. Approximately 1 week later, the agents saw Kiro and Carroll traveling toward Detroit in the same car they used to drive to the undercover negotiations. More than 2 months later, the agents once again saw the defendants driving in the same automobile from the Detroit area toward Grand Rapids. The agents knew that at the time, the Detroit area was an active center for bringing illegal liquor into the United States. Believing that Kiro and Carroll were smuggling a load of illegal liquor from Detroit to Grand Rapids, the agents stopped the vehicle. The agents conducted a warrantless search of the vehicle and found illegal liquor hidden beneath the upholstery of the seats. The U.S. Supreme Court approved of the warrantless motor vehicle search in Carroll because the agents had probable cause.

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One of the often-overlooked but rather significant findings by the U.S. Supreme Court in Carroll was that the probable cause in that case was clear. The U.S. Supreme Court stated:

   [I]t is clear the officers here had justification for the search and
   seizure. … 

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