Ross, United States v. 456 U.S. 798 (1982)

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ROSS, UNITED STATES v. 456 U.S. 798 (1982)

Ross altered the constitutional law of automobile searches. Aunited states court of appeals, following Supreme Court precedent s, had held that although police had probable cause to stop an automobile and make a warrantless search of its interior, including its closed areas, they should have had a search warrant before opening closed containers that they had searched for evidence. And in Robbins v. California (1981) the Court had declared that unless a closed container, by its shape or transparency, revealed contraband, it might not be opened without a warrant. The rationale of requiring a warrant for such a search turned on the reasonable expectation of privacy protected by the fourth amendment. Ross, however, substantially expanded the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

Justice john paul stevens for a 6–3 Court declared that the question for decision was whether the police, making a warrantless search with probable cause, had a right to open containers found in a vehicle. A lawful search of any premises extended to the whole area where the object of the search might be found. Thus a warrant to search a vehicle authorizes the search of all closed areas within it, including containers. "The scope of a warrantless search based on probable cause," Stevens said, "is no narrower—and no broader—than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant supported by probable cause." Accordingly, the scope of the search depended on the evidence sought for, not on the objects containing that evidence. Having so reasoned, the Court necessarily overruled the Robbins holding.

Justices thurgood marshall, william j. brennan, and byron r. white, dissenting, lamented that "the majority today not only repeals all realistic limits on warrantless automobile searches, it repeals the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement itself"—patently an exaggeration. Ross did make a shambles of the reasoning in earlier cases on searching closed containers in automobiles, but the Court finally delivered an unambiguous opinion for the guidance of law enforcement officers. Whether or not the Court based the new rule on expediency for the purpose of assisting prosecutorial forces, it will likely have serious implications for the privacy of Americans using their vehicles.

Leonard W. Levy

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Ross, United States v. 456 U.S. 798 (1982)

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