Search of Moving Vehicle

At the outset, it is important to note that law enforcement officers have the authority to conduct the search and seizure of illegal contraband.  The same is a manifestation of the supreme police power of the state that is being done for the protection of the public.  It is also important to stress that this awesome power of the state to conduct search and seizure is limited by the Fourth Amendment which states that: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” (Fourth Amendment)

The Fourth Amendment establishes the requirement that before an arrest or seizure is made the police officers must first secure an arrest warrant or a search warrant.  If this requirement is not complied with then the arrest or seizure is tainted with unconstitutionality.  This is affirmed in the case of Coolidge v. New Hampshire (403 US 443) when it declared that “The rule that ‘searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment – subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions’” (Coolidge v. New Hampshire quoting Katz v. United States (389 US 347)

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There are however some doctrinally accepted exceptions to the constitutional mandate that no arrest or search may be made without a duly issued warrant.  This essay research paper deals with the concept of a search of moving vehicle as one of the exceptions to the constitutional requirement of a search warrant prior to the search.

Search of Moving Vehicle

In Criminal Procedure, there is a concept known as Stop and Frisk Arrest.  Under this concept, a person may be stopped by a police officer while he is in the street if based on the latter’s reasonable suspicion, taking into consideration his experience, a criminal activity is about to take place or has taken place.  The police officer may then identify himself as a police officer and make reasonable inquiries on the person.  If the police officer based on reasonable suspicions determines that it is necessary to conduct a carefully limited search on the person for his protection and those of other people, he may frisk the person.  This is affirmed in the case of Terry v. Ohio (392 US 1) and is considered constitutional by the courts even in the absence of a search warrant.

The concept of stop and frisks involving people while in the streets likewise applies to motorists.  Motorists while driving may also be stopped by police officers if based on reasonable suspicion the driver may be involved in a criminal activity and he may be frisked if the officer fears for his safety and the safety of other people.  The only standard required for law enforcement officers to be the stop and search valid is reasonable suspicion.

In Alabama v. White (496 US 325) reasonable suspicion is defined as “…a less demanding standard than probable cause not only in the sense than reasonable suspicion can be established with information that is different in quantity or content from that required to establish probable cause, but also in the sense that reasonable suspicion can arise from information that is less reliable than that required to show probable cause.”

The reasonable suspicion required of law enforcement officers must however be based on objective facts and the logical conclusions derived by law enforcement officers taking into consideration his experience.  It must however be stressed that the search must not be based on a hunch or a mere suspicion otherwise the stop and search may become unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court first enunciated that searches of moving vehicles constitute an exception to the search warrant requirement in the case of Carroll v. United States (267 US 132) The primary justification for such an exception is that requiring a police officer to secure a search warrant before search of moving vehicle will be made will hamper enforcement of the law since the vehicles are so mobile that they can easily be transferred from one jurisdiction to another.

There are currently two cases under decided under Texas laws involving the constitutionality of searches of moving vehicle.  Texas v. Brown (460 US 730) and Texas v. White (423 U.S. 67)

TEXAS v. BROWN, 460 U.S. 730 (1983)

Facts:   A Texas police officer stopped a car being driven by Brown in a routine driver’s license checkpoint.  While standing alongside the driver’s window, police officer Tom Maples asked for his driver’s license.  At the same time, Maples pointed his flashlight inside the car and noticed that between the two middle fingers of Brown’s right hand was a party balloon.  Brown dropped the balloon to the seat beside him to open the glove compartment.

As an experienced police officer, Maples was aware that narcotics were frequently packaged in such balloons.  While the respondent was searching his glove compartment he shifted his position to obtain a better view of what is inside the glove compartment.  He noticed several small plastic vials, quantities of loose white power and an open bag of party balloons.  When Brown failed to show his driver’s license, the police officer instructed him to get out of the car.  He picked the green balloon which seemed to contain a powdery substance.  The police officer then informed Brown that he was under arrest.  The illegal contraband found inside the car was seized.    During the trial, respondent moved to suppress the evidence found inside his car.  The motion was denied and respondent was convicted based on the evidence discovered.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the finding holding that the evidence was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Issue: whether the evidence was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Ruling: The police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he seized the balloon containing the illegal drugs from respondent’s vehicle.

Analysis:  The Supreme Court applied the concept of plain view doctrine to justify the seizure of the illegal drugs found inside Brown’s car.  The plain view doctrine provided a valid justification for a search and seizure without a warrant if at the time of the search and seizure the police officer conducting the search had prior justification to search.  This is actually merely an application of the Fourth Amendment which requires that the search must be reasonable.

In this case, the police officer had valid reason for requiring the respondent to stop from the very beginning since that was a routine checkpoint.  The police officer also had valid reason for shining his flashlight inside the respondent’s car for the purpose of protecting himself and the public from what the respondent may get from inside his car.

The police officer also had probable cause to search the car and seized the illegal drugs found in it.  The concept of probable cause is a flexible concept which requires that based on the facts and circumstances and the police officer’s prior experiences there is something that would warrant a man of reasonable caution to believe that certain items are illegal or may serve as evidence to a crime.  Here the police officer noticed a balloon in the right hand of respondent Brown.  Based on his experience as a police officer, such balloons were commonly used in packaging narcotics.  Combined this with the powdery substance and the plastic vials that he saw inside the respondent’s car, the search and seizure in the absence of a warrant therefore becomes justified

The search may also be considered valid under the principle of the Plain View Doctrine which is another doctrinally recognized exception to the warrant requirement.  It only requires that the officer must discover the incriminating evidence inadvertently.   The requirements for a search to be valid under the Plain View Doctrine are: a) the officer must lawfully make an “initial intrusion” or otherwise be in a proper position from which he can view a particular area; b) The officer must discover the incriminating evidence inadvertently; and c) it must be immediately apparent that the items observed may be evidence of a crime, contraband or otherwise subject to seizure.   These requirements have been complied with in this case.

Texas v. White (423 U.S. 67)

Facts: The police officers received information from the First National Bank of Amarillo that a man who was driving an automobile attempted to negotiate four checks drawn against a nonexistent account.  The police officers rushed to the First National Bank of Amarillo.  They obtained from the drive-in teller the checks the respondent attempted to pass.  They asked the respondent to park his car.  At this point, the drive-in teller and the police officers noticed that the respondent attempted to hide something in between his seats.  The police then arrested the respondent and sent him to the stationhouse for further investigation.  At the station house, he was questioned and was asked to give consent to the search of his automobile.    Despite the respondent’s refusal, the officer still proceeded with their search.  After which they discovered four wrinkled checks corresponding to that which he attempted to pass at the bank.  The trial judge convicted the respondent after denying his motion to suppress the evidence.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the respondent’s conviction.

Issue: whether the evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment

Ruling: No.  The evidence was admissible in evidence against the respondent

Analysis: The court here followed its earlier pronouncement in the case of Chambers v. Maroney where it held that if the police officers had probable cause to search an automobile at the scene of the crime but they stopped such search may still search the automobile after they had take the suspect to the stationhouse for investigation.   The probable cause therefore that was present at the crime scene was still available even when the suspect had been taken to the stationhouse.  This makes the search conducted at the stationhouse constitutional even in the absence of a warrant.