The Automobile Exception
In the early 2000s, hip hop mogul Jay-Z released “99 Problems,” a song that concerned—among other things—the law governing when police may search the vehicles of criminal suspects. The song recounts a conversation between the rapper and a police officer who pulled him over in 1994.
Officer: Do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?
Jay-Z: Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back,
And I know my rights so you go’n need a warrant for that
Officer: Aren’t you sharp as a tack, some type of lawyer or something
Or somebody important or something?”
Jay-Z: Nah I ain’t pass the bar but I know a little bit …43
Professor Caleb Mason published an essay in 2012 that examines “99 Problems” in great detail, focusing particularly on its relevance to criminal procedure.44
If this Essay serves no other purpose, I hope it serves to debunk, for any readers who persist in believing it, the myth that locking your trunk will keep the cops from searching it. Based on the number of my students who arrived at law school believing that if you lock your trunk and glove compartment, the police will need a warrant to search them, I surmise that it’s even more widespread among the lay public. But it’s completely, 100% wrong.
There is no warrant requirement for car searches. The Supreme Court has declared unequivocally that because cars are inherently mobile (and are pervasively regulated, and operated in public spaces), it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the police to search the car–the whole car, and everything in the car, including containers–whenever they have probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of crime. You don’t have to arrest the person, or impound the vehicle. You just need probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of crime. So, in any vehicle stop, the officers may search the entire car, without consent, if they develop probable cause to believe that car contains, say, drugs.
All the action, in short, is about probable cause. Warrants never come into the picture. The fact that the trunk and glove compartments are locked is completely irrelevant. Now, Jay-Z may have just altered the lyrics for dramatic effect, but that would be unfortunate insofar as the song is going to reach many more people than any criminal procedure lecture, and everyone should really know the outline of the law in this area. What the line should say is: “You’ll need some p.c. for that.”
In Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (2018), the Court decided “whether the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein.” For the majority, the question was straightforward. In an opinion joined by six other Justices, Justice Sotomayor wrote: “Because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes’ invasion of the curtilage. Nothing in this Court’s case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant. Such an expansion would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and ‘“untether”’ the exception ‘“from the justifications underlying”’ it.” The Court rejected the idea “that the automobile exception is a categorical one that permits the warrantless search of a vehicle anytime, anywhere, including in a home or curtilage.”
Justice Alito dissented sharply, quoting Charles Dickens: “If that is the law, [a character in Oliver Twist] exclaimed, ‘the law is a ass—a idiot.’” Justice Alito noted, “If the motorcycle had been parked at the curb, instead of in the driveway, it is undisputed that Rhodes could have searched it without obtaining a warrant.” He found it bizarre that search became “unreasonable” “[b]ecause, in order to reach the motorcycle, [the officer] had to walk 30 feet or so up the driveway of the house rented by petitioner’s girlfriend, and by doing that, … invaded the home’s ‘curtilage.’”