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California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991)


Police observed respondent Acevedo leave an apartment, known to contain marijuana, with a brown paper bag the size of marijuana packages they had seen earlier. He placed the bag in his car’s trunk, and, as he drove away, they stopped the car, opened the trunk and the bag, and found marijuana. Acevedo’s motion to suppress the marijuana was denied, and he pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana for sale. The California Court of Appeal held that the marijuana should have been suppressed. Finding that the officers had probable cause to believe that the bag contained drugs but lacked probable cause to suspect that the car, itself, otherwise contained contraband, the court concluded that the case was controlled by United States v. Chadwick, 433 U. S. 1, which held that police could seize movable luggage or other closed containers, but could not open them without a warrant, since, inter alia, a person has a heightened privacy expectation in such containers.

Held: Police, in a search extending only to a container within an automobile, may search the container without a warrant where they have probable cause to believe that it holds contraband or evidence. Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132 — which held that a warrantless search of an automobile based upon probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of crime in the light of an exigency arising out of the vehicle’s likely disappearance did not contravene the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Clause — provides one rule to govern all automobile searches. Pp. 500 U. S. 569-581.

(a) Separate doctrines have permitted the warrantless search of an automobile to include a search of closed containers found inside the car when there is probable cause to search the vehicle, United States v. Ross, 456 U. S. 798, but prohibited the warrantless search of a closed container located in a moving vehicle when there is probable cause to search only the container, Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U. S. 753. Pp. 500 U. S. 569-572.

(b) The doctrine of stare decisis does not preclude this Court from eliminating the warrant requirement of Sanders, which was specifically undermined in Ross. The Chadwick-Sanders rule affords minimal protection to privacy interests. Police, knowing that they may open a bag only if they are searching the entire car, may search more extensively

Page 500 U. S. 566

than they otherwise would in order to establish the probable cause Ross requires. Cf. United States v. Johns, 469 U. S. 478. And they may seize a container and hold it until they obtain a search warrant or search it without a warrant as a search incident to a lawful arrest. Moreover, the search of a paper bag intrudes far less on individual privacy than does the incursion sanctioned in Carroll, where prohibition agents slashed a car’s upholstery. The Chadwick-Sanders rule also is the antithesis of a clear and unequivocal guideline and, thus, has confused courts and police officers and impeded effective law enforcement. United States v. Place, 462 U. S. 696; Oklahoma v. Castleberry, 471 U. S. 146, distinguished. Pp. 500 U. S. 572-579.

(c) This holding neither extends the Carroll doctrine nor broadens the scope of permissible automobile searches. In the instant case, the probable cause the police had to believe that the bag in the car’s trunk contained marijuana now allows a warrantless search of the bag, but the record reveals no probable cause to search the entire vehicle. P. 500 U. S. 579-580.

216 Cal. App. 3d 586, 265 Cal. Rptr. 23, reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O’CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 500 U. S. 581. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 500 U. S. 585. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 500 U. S. 585.