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Chambers v. Maroney 399 U.S. 42 (1970)

CHAMBERS v. MARONEY 399 U.S. 42 (1970)

In this important fourth amendment case involving the automobile exception to the search warrant clause, the police had seized a car without a warrant and had searched it later, without a warrant, after having driven it to the police station, where they impounded it. Justice byron r. white for the Supreme Court acknowledged that the search could not be justified as having been conducted as a search incident to arrest; nor could he find exigent circumstances that justified the warrantless search.

White simply fudged the facts. He declared that there was "no difference between on the one hand seizing and holding a car before presenting the probable cause issue to a magistrate and on the other hand carrying out an immediate search without a warrant." Either course was "reasonable under the Fourth Amendment," but the police had followed neither course in this case. Probable cause for the search had existed at the time of the search, and White declared without explanation that probable cause still existed later when the police made the search at the station, when the felons were in custody. However, the possibility that they might drive off in the car did not exist; that possibility had alone occasioned the automobile exception in the first place. Absent a risk that the culprits might use the vehicle to escape with the fruits of their crime, the constitutional distinction between houses and cars did not matter. White saw no difference in the practical consequences of choosing between an immediate search without a warrant, when probable cause existed, and "the car's immobilization until a warrant is obtained." That logic was irrefutable and irrelevant, because the failure of the police to obtain the warrant gave rise to the case. Only Justice john marshall harlan dissented from this line of reasoning.

Until this case mere probable cause for a search, as judged only by a police officer, did not by itself justify a warrantless search; the case is significant, too, because of its implied rule that exigent circumstances need not justify the warrantless search of a car. Following Chambers, the Court almost routinely assumed that if a search might have been made at the time of arrest, any warrantless search conducted later, when the vehicle was impounded, was a valid one.

Leonard W. Levy

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