Chambers v. Maroney, 39 U.S. 42 (1970)

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The principal question in this case concerns the admissibility of evidence seized from an automobile, in which petitioner was riding at the time of his arrest, after the automobile was taken to a police station and was there thoroughly searched without a warrant.  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found no violation of petitioner’s Fourth Amendment rights.  We affirm.


During the night of May 20, 1963, a Gulf service station in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, was robbed by two men, each of whom carried and displayed a gun.  The robbers took the currency from the cash register; the service station attendant, one Stephen Kovacich, was directed to place the coins in his right-hand glove, which was then taken by the robbers.  Two teen-agers, who had earlier noticed a blue compact station wagon circling the block in the vicinity of the Gulf station, then saw the station wagon speed away from a parking lot close to the Gulf station.

About the same time, they learned that the Gulf station had been robbed.  They reported to police, who arrived immediately, that four men were in the station wagon and one was wearing a green sweater. Kovacich told the police that one of the men who robbed him was wearing a green sweater and the other was wearing a trench coat.  A description of the car and the two robbers was broadcast over the police radio.  Within an hour, a light blue compact station wagon answering the description and carrying four men was stopped by the police about two miles from the Gulf station.  Petitioner was one of the men in the station wagon.  He was wearing a green sweater and there was a trench coat in the car.  The occupants were arrested and the car was driven to the police station.

In the course of a thorough search of the car at the station, the police found concealed in a compartment under the dashboard two .38-caliber revolvers (one loaded with dumdum bullets), a right-hand glove containing small change, and certain cards bearing the name of Raymond Havicon, the attendant at a Boron service station in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, who had been robbed at gunpoint on May 13, 1963.  In the course of a warrant-authorized search of petitioner’s home the day after petitioner’s arrest, police found and seized certain .38-caliber ammunition, including some dumdum bullets similar to those found in one of the guns taken from the station wagon.

Petitioner was indicted for both robberies.  His first trial ended in a mistrial but he was convicted of both robberies at the second trial.  Both Kovacich and Havicon identified petitioner as one of the robbers.  The materials taken from the station wagon were introduced into evidence, Kovacich identifying his glove and Havicon the cards taken in the May 13 robbery.  The bullets seized at petitioner’s house were also introduced over objections of petitioner’s counsel.  Petitioner was sentenced to a term of four to eight years’ imprisonment for the May 13 robbery and to a term of two to seven years’ imprisonment for the May 20 robbery, the sentences to run consecutively.  Petitioner did not take a direct appeal from these convictions.  In 1965, petitioner sought a writ of habeas corpus in the state court, which denied the writ after a brief evidentiary hearing; the denial of the writ was affirmed on appeal in the Pennsylvania appellate courts.  Habeas corpus proceedings were then commenced in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  An order to show cause was issued.  Based on the State’s response and the state court record, the petition for habeas corpus was denied without a hearing.  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, and we granted certiorari.


We pass quickly the claim that the search of the automobile was the fruit of an unlawful arrest.  Both the courts below thought the arresting officers had probable cause to make the arrest.  We agree.  Having talked to the teen-age observers and to the victim Kovacich, the police had ample cause to stop a light blue compact station wagon carrying four men and to arrest the occupants, one of whom was wearing a green sweater and one of whom had a trench coat with him in the car.

Even so, the search that produced the incriminating evidence was made at the police station some time after the arrest and cannot be justified as a search incident to an arrest: “Once an accused is under arrest and in custody, then a search made at another place, without a warrant, is simply not incident to the arrest.”  The reasons that have been thought sufficient to justify warrantless searches carried out in connection with an arrest no longer obtain when the accused is safely in custody at the station house.

There are, however, alternative grounds arguably justifying the search of the car in this case.  In Preston, the arrest was for vagrancy; it was apparent that the officers had no cause to believe that evidence of crime was concealed in the auto.  In Dyke, the Court expressly rejected the suggestion that there was probable cause to search the car.  Here the situation is different, for the police had probable cause to believe that the robbers, carrying guns and the fruits of the crime, had fled the scene in a light blue compact station wagon which would be carrying four men, one wearing a green sweater and another wearing a trench coat.  As the state courts correctly held, there was probable cause to arrest the occupants of the station wagon that the officers stopped; just as obviously was there probable cause to search the car for guns and stolen money.

In terms of the circumstances justifying a warrantless search, the Court has long distinguished between an automobile and a home or office.  In Carroll v. United States, the issue was the admissibility in evidence of contraband liquor seized in a warrantless search of a car on the highway.  After surveying the law from the time of the adoption of the Fourth Amendment onward, the Court held that automobiles and other conveyances may be searched without a warrant in circumstances that would not justify the search without a warrant of a house or an office, provided that there is probable cause to believe that the car contains articles that the officers are entitled to seize.  The Court expressed its holding as follows:

We have made a somewhat extended reference to these statutes to show that the guaranty of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures by the Fourth Amendment has been construed, practically since the beginning of the Government, as recognizing a necessary difference between a search of a store, dwelling house or other structure in respect of which a proper official warrant readily may be obtained, and a search of a ship, motor boat, wagon or automobile, for contraband goods, where it is not practicable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.

Having thus established that contraband goods concealed and illegally transported in an automobile or other vehicle may be searched for without a warrant, we come now to consider under what circumstances such search may be made…  Those lawfully within the country, entitled to use the public highways, have a right to free passage without interruption or search unless there is known to a competent official authorized to search, probable cause for believing that their vehicles are carrying contraband or illegal merchandise…


The measure of legality of such a seizure is, therefore, that the seizing officer shall have reasonable or probable cause for believing that the automobile which he stops and seizes has contraband liquor therein which is being illegally transported. 

The Court also noted that the search of an auto on probable cause proceeds on a theory wholly different from that justifying the search incident to an arrest: 

“The right to search and the validity of the seizure are not dependent on the right to arrest.  They are dependent on the reasonable cause the seizing officer has for belief that the contents of the automobile offend against the law.”

Finding that there was probable cause for the search and seizure at issue before it, the Court affirmed the convictions.

Carroll was followed and applied in Husty v. United States and Scher v. United States.  It was reaffirmed and followed in Brinegar v. United States.  In 1964, the opinion in Preston, cited both Brinegar and Carroll with approval.  In Cooper v. California, the Court read Preston as dealing primarily with a search incident to arrest and cited that case for the proposition that the mobility of a car may make the search of a car without a warrant reasonable “although the result might be the opposite in a search of a home, a store, or other fixed piece of property.”  The Court’s opinion in Dyke recognized that “automobiles, because of their mobility, may be searched without a warrant upon facts not justifying a warrantless search of a residence or office,” citing Brinegar and Carrol.  However, because there was insufficient reason to search the car involved in the Dyke case, the Court did not reach the question of whether those cases “extend to a warrantless search, based upon probable cause, of an automobile which, having been stopped originally on a highway, is parked outside a courthouse.”

Neither Carroll nor other cases in this Court require or suggest that in every conceivable circumstances the search of an auto even with probable cause may be made without the extra protection for privacy that a warrant affords.  But the circumstances that furnish probable cause to search a particular auto for particular articles are most often unforeseeable; moreover, the opportunity to search is fleeting since a car is readily movable.  Where this is true, as in Carroll and the case before us now, if an effective search is to be made at any time, either the search must be made immediately without a warrant or the car itself must be seized and held without a warrant for whatever period is necessary to obtain a warrant for the search.

In enforcing the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Court has insisted upon probable cause as a minimum requirement for a reasonable search permitted by the Constitution.  As a general rule, it has also required the judgment of a magistrate on the probable-cause issue and the issuance of a warrant before a search is made.  Only in exigent circumstances will the judgment of the police as to probable cause serve as a sufficient authorization for a search.  Carroll holds a search warrant unnecessary where there is probable cause to search an automobile stopped on the highway; the car is movable, the occupants are alerted, and the car’s contents may never be found again if a warrant must be obtained.  Hence an immediate search is constitutionally permissible.

Arguably, because of the preference for a magistrate’s judgment, only the immobilization of the car should be permitted until a search warrant is obtained; arguably, only the “lesser” intrusion is permissible until the magistrate authorizes the “greater.”  But which is the “greater” and which the “lesser” intrusion is itself a debatable question and the answer may depend on a variety of circumstances.  For constitutional purposes, we see no difference between on the one hand seizing and holding a car before presenting the probable cause issue to a magistrate and on the other hand carrying out an immediate search without a warrant.  Given probable cause to search, either course is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

On the facts before us, the blue station wagon could have been searched on the spot when it was stopped since there was probable cause to search and it was a fleeting target for a search.  The probable-cause factor still obtained at the station house and so did the mobility of the car unless the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless seizure of the car and the denial of its use to anyone until a warrant is secured.  In that event there is little to choose in terms of practical consequences between an immediate search without a warrant and the car’s immobilization until a warrant is obtained.  The same consequences may not follow where there is unforeseeable cause to search a house.  But as Carrol held, for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment there is a constitutional difference between houses and cars.


Neither of petitioner’s remaining contentions warrants reversal of the judgment of the Court of Appeals.  One of them challenges the admissibility at trial of the .38-caliber ammunition seized in the course of a search of petitioner’s house.  The circumstances relevant to this issue are somewhat confused, involving as they do questions of probable cause, a lost search warrant, and the Pennsylvania procedure for challenging the admissibility of evidence seized.  Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals, however, after careful examination of the record, found that if there was error in admitting the ammunition, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.  Having ourselves studied this record, we are not prepared to differ with the two courts below.


The Court of Appeals reached the right result in denying a hearing in this case. 


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