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Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420 (1981)


When California Highway Patrol officers stopped petitioner’s station wagon for proceeding erratically, they smelled marihuana smoke as he opened the car door. In the ensuing search of the car, the officers found in the luggage compartment two packages wrapped in green opaque plastic. They then unwrapped the packages, both of which contained bricks of marihuana. Petitioner was charged with various drug offenses, and, after his pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found when the packages were unwrapped was denied, he was convicted. The California Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the warrantless opening of the packages was constitutionally permissible, since any experienced observer could reasonably have inferred from the appearance of the packages that they contained bricks of marihuana.

Held: The judgment is reversed. Pp.  453 U. S. 423-29;  453 U. S. 429-436.

103 Cal. App. 3d 34, 162 Cal. Rptr. 780, reversed.

JUSTICE STEWART, joined by JUSTICE BRENNAN, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE MARSHALL, concluded that the opening of the packages without a search warrant violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 453 U. S. 423-429.

(a) A closed piece of luggage found in a lawfully searched car is constitutionally protected to the same extent as are closed pieces of luggage found anywhere else.  United States v. Chadwick, 433 U. S. 1; Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U. S. 753. Pp.  453 U. S. 423-425.

(b) With respect to the constitutional protection to which a closed container found in the lawful search of an automobile is entitled, there is no distinction between containers, such as suitcases, commonly used to transport “personal effects,” i.e., property worn on or carried about the person or having some intimate relation to the person, and flimsier containers, such as cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Such a distinction has no basis in the language or meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people and their effects, and protects those effects whether they are “personal” or “impersonal.” And there are no objective criteria by which such a distinction could be made. Pp.  453 U. S. 425-427.

(c) Unless a closed container found in an automobile is such that 

Page 453 U. S. 421

its contents may be said to be in plain view, those contents are fully protected by the Fourth Amendment. Here, the evidence was insufficient to justify an exception to the rule on the ground that the contents of the packages in question could be inferred from their outward appearance. To fall within such exception, a container must so clearly announce its contents, whether by its distinctive configuration, transparency, or otherwise, that its contents are obvious to the observer. Pp.  453 U. S. 427-428.

JUSTICE POWELL concluded that petitioner had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the opaquely wrapped and sealed package in question. The Fourth Amendment requires a police officer to obtain a warrant before searching a container that customarily serves as a repository for personal effects or when, as here, the circumstances indicate that the defendant has a reasonable expectation that the contents will not be open to public scrutiny. Pp.  453 U. S. 429-436.

STEWART, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., concurred in the judgment. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p.  453 U. S. 429. BLACKMUN, J., post, p.  453 U. S. 436, REHNQUIST, J., post, p.  453 U. S. 437, and STEVENS, J., post, p.  453 U. S. 444, filed dissenting opinions. 

Page 453 U. S. 422