The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution protects all of use from unreasonable intrusion by the government into our private affairs. Generally, before searching for contraband, or evidence of crime, the police must generally have a warrant based on a judicial finding of probable cause. Indeed, the Supreme Court has told us that any search conducted without a warrant is per se illegal, unless and exception to the warrant requirement applies.
If the police have probable cause to believe a car contains contraband, fruits, or evidence of crime, they do not need a warrant to search.
"We hold that the scope of the warrantless search authorized by that exception is no broader and no narrower than a magistrate could legitimately authorize by warrant. If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search." US. v. Ross.
Note the limitation though. Probable cause to bleive a vehicle was transporting illegal assault-type weapons would not justify the opening of a woman's pocketbook as that pocketbook could not hold the object of the search.
So, the initial question is what is probable cause? The Supreme Court tells us that law enforcement officers possess probable cause when:
“facts and circumstances within their [the officers'] knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information [are] sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed.”1
The Police can search a car without the necessity of warrant because one’s expectation of privacy is less.
Unlike house or building, cars were once seen to be “readily mobile”, and, it was reasoned if they were taken from a scene prior to the time officers secured a warrant- valuable evidence could be lost. Courts also generally reason that one’s expectation of privacy is less in a car than, let’s say in one’s home. The less the expectation of privacy, the more an intrusion will be seen as reasonable, in a constitutional sense. Any time the police have probable cause that a car contains contraband or evidence of crime, they can search the car -and any containers in the car- that could contain the item.
Any container, e.g.:
- sealed package
- gym bag
is subject to search, if the police believe there is contraband or evidence in the car, and that the container would hold it, irrespective of whom the container belongs.2
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FN 1Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 162.
FN 2 Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999)