United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982)


Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment


Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Carroll v. United States, the Court held that a warrantless search of an automobile stopped by police officers who had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband was not unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  The Court in Carroll did not explicitly address the scope of the search that is permissible.  In this case, we consider the extent to which police officers—who have legitimately stopped an automobile and who have probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it—may conduct a probing search of compartments and containers within the vehicle whose contents are not in plain view.  We hold that they may conduct a search of the vehicle that is as thorough as a magistrate could authorize in a warrant “particularly describing the place to be searched.”

In the evening of November 27, 1978, an informant who had previously proved to be reliable telephoned Detective Marcum of the District of Columbia Police Department and told him that an individual known as “Bandit” was selling narcotics kept in the trunk of a car parked at 439 Ridge Street.  The informant stated that he had just observed “Bandit” complete a sale, and that “Bandit” had told him that additional narcotics were in the trunk.  The informant gave Marcum a detailed description of “Bandit” and stated that the car was a “purplish maroon” Chevrolet Malibu with District of Columbia license plates.

Accompanied by Detective Cassidy and Sergeant Gonzales, Marcum immediately drove to the area and found a maroon Malibu parked in front of 439 Ridge Street.  A license check disclosed that the car was registered to Albert Ross; a computer check on Ross revealed that he fit the informant’s description and used the alias “Bandit.”  In two passes through the neighborhood the officers did not observe anyone matching the informant’s description.  To avoid alerting persons on the street, they left the area.

The officers returned five minutes later and observed the maroon Malibu turning off Ridge Street onto Fourth Street.  They pulled alongside the Malibu, noticed that the driver matched the informant’s description, and stopped the car.  Marcum and Cassidy told the driver—later identified as Albert Ross, the respondent in this action—to get out of the vehicle.  While they searched Ross, Sergeant Gonzales discovered a bullet on the car’s front seat.  He searched the interior of the car and found a pistol in the glove compartment.  Ross then was arrested and handcuffed.  Detective Cassidy took Ross’ keys and opened the trunk, where he found a closed brown paper bag.  He opened the bag and discovered a number of glassine bags containing a white powder.  Cassidy replaced the bag, closed the trunk, and drove the car to headquarters.

At the police station, Cassidy thoroughly searched the car.  In addition to the “lunch-type” brown paper bag, Cassidy found in the trunk a zippered red leather pouch.  He unzipped the pouch and discovered $3,200 in cash.  The police laboratory later determined that the powder in the paper bag was heroin.  No warrant was obtained.

Ross was charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a).  Prior to trial, he moved to suppress the heroin found in the paper bag and the currency found in the leather pouch.  After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court denied the motion to suppress.  The heroin and currency were introduced in evidence at trial, and Ross was convicted.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction.  It held that the police had probable cause to stop and search Ross’ car and that, under Carroll v. United States and Chambers v. Maroney, the officers lawfully could search the automobile—including its trunk—without a warrant.  The court considered separately, however, the warrantless search of the two containers found in the trunk.

On the basis of Arkansas v. Sanders, the court concluded that the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a container found in an automobile depends on whether the owner possesses a reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents.  Applying that test, the court held that the warrantless search of the paper bag was valid, but the search of the leather pouch was not.  The court remanded for a new trial at which the items taken from the paper bag, but not those from the leather pouch, could be admitted.

The entire Court of Appeals then voted to rehear the case en banc.  A majority of the court rejected the panel’s conclusion that a distinction of constitutional significance existed between the two containers found in respondent’s trunk; it held that the police should not have opened either container without first obtaining a warrant.  The court reasoned:

“No specific, well delineated exception called to our attention permits the police to dispense with a warrant to open and search ‘unworthy’ containers.  Moreover, we believe that a rule under which the validity of a warrantless search would turn on judgments about the durability of a container would impose an unreasonable and unmanageable burden on police and courts.  For these reasons, and because the Fourth Amendment protects all persons, not just those with the resources or fastidiousness to place their effects in containers that decisionmakers would rank in the luggage line, we hold that the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement forbids the warrantless opening of a closed, opaque paper bag to the same extent that it forbids the warrantless opening of a small unlocked suitcase or a zippered leather pouch.”

The en banc Court of Appeals considered, and rejected, the argument that it was reasonable for the police to open both the paper bag and the leather pouch because they were entitled to conduct a warrantless search of the entire vehicle in which the two containers were found.  The majority concluded that this argument was foreclosed by Sanders.

Three dissenting judges interpreted Sanders differently.  Other courts also have read the Sanders opinion in different ways.  Moreover, disagreement concerning the proper interpretation of Sanders was at least partially responsible for the fact that Robbins v. California was decided last Term without a Court opinion.

There is, however, no dispute among judges about the importance of striving for clarification in this area of the law.  For countless vehicles are stopped on highways and public streets every day, and our cases demonstrate that it is not uncommon for police officers to have probable cause to believe that contraband may be found in a stopped vehicle.  In every such case, a conflict is presented between the individual’s constitutionally protected interest in privacy and the public interest in effective law enforcement.  No single rule of law can resolve every conflict, but our conviction that clarification is feasible led us to grant the Government’s petition for certiorari in this case and to invite the parties to address the question whether the decision in Robbins should be reconsidered. 

II.

We begin with a review of the decision in Carroll itself.  In the fall of 1921, federal prohibition agents obtained evidence that George Carroll and John Kiro were “bootleggers” who frequently traveled between Grand Rapids and Detroit in an Oldsmobile Roadster.  On December 15, 1921, the agents unexpectedly encountered Carroll and Kiro driving west on that route in that car.  The officers gave pursuit, stopped the roadster on the highway, and directed Carroll and Kiro to get out of the car.

No contraband was visible in the front seat of the Oldsmobile, and the rear portion of the roadster was closed.  One of the agents raised the rumble, seat but found no liquor.  He raised the seat cushion and again found nothing.  The officer then struck at the “lazyback” of the seat and noticed that it was “harder than upholstery ordinarily is in those backs.”  He tore open the seat cushion and discovered 68 bottles of gin and whiskey concealed inside.  No warrant had been obtained for the search.

Carroll and Kiro were convicted of transporting intoxicating liquor in violation of the National Prohibition Act.  On review of those convictions, this Court ruled that the warrantless search of the roadster was reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  In an extensive opinion written by Chief Justice Taft, the Court held:

“On reason and authority, the true rule is that, if the search and seizure without a warrant are made upon probable cause, that is, upon a belief, reasonably arising out of circumstances known to the seizing officer, that an automobile or other vehicle contains that which by law is subject to seizure and destruction, the search and seizure are valid.  The Fourth Amendment is to be construed in the light of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when it was adopted, and in a manner which will conserve public interests, as well as the interests and rights of individual citizens.”

The Court explained at length the basis for this rule.  The Court noted that, historically, warrantless searches of vessels, wagons, and carriages—as opposed to fixed premises such as a home or other building—had been considered reasonable by Congress.  After reviewing legislation enacted by Congress between 1789 and 1799, the Court stated:

“Thus, contemporaneously with the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, we find in the first Congress, and in the following Second and Fourth Congresses, a difference made as to the necessity for a search warrant between goods subject to forfeiture, when concealed in a dwelling house or similar place, and like goods in course of transportation and concealed in a movable vessel where they readily could be put out of reach of a search warrant.”

The Court reviewed additional legislation passed by Congress, and again noted 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.”

Thus, since its earliest days Congress had recognized the impracticability of securing a warrant in cases involving the transportation of contraband goods.  It is this impracticability, viewed in historical perspective, that provided the basis for the Carroll decision.  Given the nature of an automobile in transit, the Court recognized that an immediate intrusion is necessary if police officers are to secure the illicit substance.  In this class of cases, the Court held that a warrantless search of an automobile is not unreasonable.  In defining the nature of this “exception” to the general rule that, “in cases where the securing of a warrant is reasonably practicable, it must be used,” the Court in Carroll emphasized the importance of the requirement that officers have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband.

“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.  It would be intolerable and unreasonable if a prohibition agent were authorized to stop every automobile on the chance of finding liquor, and thus subject all persons lawfully using the highways to the inconvenience and indignity of such a search.  Travelers may be so stopped in crossing an international boundary because of national self-protection reasonably requiring one entering the country to identify himself as entitled to come in, and his belongings as effects which may be lawfully brought in.  But 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.”

Moreover, the probable cause determination must be based on objective facts that could justify the issuance of a warrant by a magistrate, and not merely on the subjective good faith of the police officers.

“As we have seen, good faith is not enough to constitute probable cause.  That faith must be grounded on facts within knowledge of the officer which in the judgment of the court would make his faith reasonable.”

In short, the exception to the warrant requirement established in Carroll—the scope of which we consider in this case—applies only to searches of vehicles that are supported by probable cause.  In this class of cases, a search is not unreasonable if based on facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant, even though a warrant has not actually been obtained. 

III.

The rationale justifying a warrantless search of an automobile that is believed to be transporting contraband arguably applies with equal force to any movable container that is believed to be carrying an illicit substance.  That argument, however, was squarely rejected in United States v. Chadwick.  Chadwick involved the warrantless search of a 200-pound footlocker secured with two padlocks. Federal railroad officials in San Diego became suspicious when they noticed that a brown footlocker loaded onto a train bound for Boston was unusually heavy and leaking talcum powder, a substance often used to mask the odor of marihuana.  Narcotics agents met the train in Boston and a trained police dog signaled the presence of a controlled substance inside the footlocker.  The agents did not seize the footlocker, however, at this time; they waited until respondent Chadwick arrived and the footlocker was placed in the trunk of Chadwick’s automobile.  Before the engine was started, the officers arrested Chadwick and his two companions.  The agents then removed the footlocker to a secured place, opened it without a warrant, and discovered a large quantity of marihuana.

In a subsequent criminal proceeding, Chadwick claimed that the warrantless search of the footlocker violated the Fourth Amendment.  In the District Court, the Government argued that, as soon as the footlocker was placed in the automobile, a warrantless search was permissible under Carroll.  The District Court rejected that argument, and the Government did not pursue it on appeal.  Rather, the Government contended in this Court that the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment applied only to searches of homes and other “core” areas of privacy.  The Court unanimously rejected that contention.  Writing for the Court, THE CHIEF JUSTICE stated:

“If there is little evidence that the Framers intended the Warrant Clause to operate outside the home, there is no evidence at all that they intended to exclude from protection of the Clause all searches occurring outside the home.  The absence of a contemporary outcry against warrantless searches in public places was because, aside from searches incident to arrest, such warrantless searches were not a large issue in colonial America.  Thus, silence in the historical record tells us little about the Framers’ attitude toward application of the Warrant Clause to the search of respondents’ footlocker.  What we do know is that the Framers were men who focused on the wrongs of that day, but who intended the Fourth Amendment to safeguard fundamental values which would far outlast the specific abuses which gave it birth.”

The Court in Chadwick specifically rejected the argument that the warrantless search was “reasonable” because a footlocker has some of the mobile characteristics that support warrantless searches of automobiles.  The Court recognized that “a person’s expectations of privacy in personal luggage are substantially greater than in an automobile,” and noted that the practical problems associated with the temporary detention of a piece of luggage during the period of time necessary to obtain a warrant are significantly less than those associated with the detention of an automobile.  In ruling that the warrantless search of the footlocker was unjustified, the Court reaffirmed the general principle that closed packages and containers may not be searched without a warrant.  In sum, the Court in Chadwick declined to extend the rationale of the “automobile exception” to permit a warrantless search of any movable container found in a public place.

The facts in Arkansas v. Sanders were similar to those in Chadwick. In Sanders, a Little Rock police officer received information from a reliable informant that Sanders would arrive at the local airport on a specified flight that afternoon carrying a green suitcase containing marihuana.  The officer went to the airport.  Sanders arrived on schedule, and retrieved a green suitcase from the airline baggage service.  Sanders gave the suitcase to a waiting companion, who placed it in the trunk of a taxi.  Sanders and his companion drove off in the cab; police officers followed and stopped the taxi several blocks from the airport.  The officers opened the trunk, seized the suitcase, and searched it on the scene without a warrant.  As predicted, the suitcase contained marihuana.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the warrantless search of the suitcase was impermissible under the Fourth Amendment, and this Court affirmed.  As in Chadwick, the mere fact that the suitcase had been placed in the trunk of the vehicle did not render the automobile exception of Carroll applicable; the police had probable cause to seize the suitcase before it was placed in the trunk of the cab, and did not have probable cause to search the taxi itself.  Since the suitcase had been placed in the trunk, no danger existed that its contents could have been secreted elsewhere in the vehicle.  As THE CHIEF JUSTICE noted in his opinion concurring in the judgment:

“Because the police officers had probable cause to believe that respondent’s green suitcase contained marihuana before it was placed in the trunk of the taxicab, their duty to obtain a search warrant before opening it is clear under United States v. Chadwick.

Here, as in Chadwick, it was the luggage being transported by respondent at the time of the arrest, not the automobile in which it was being carried, that was the suspected locus of the contraband.  The relationship between the automobile and the contraband was purely coincidental, as in Chadwick.  The fact that the suitcase was resting in the trunk of the automobile at the time of respondent’s arrest does not turn this into an ‘automobile’ exception case. The Court need say no more.”

The Court in Sanders did not, however, rest its decision solely on the authority of Chadwick.  In rejecting the State’s argument that the warrantless search of the suitcase was justified on the ground that it had been taken from an automobile lawfully stopped on the street, the Court broadly suggested that a warrantless search of a container found in an automobile could never be sustained as part of a warrantless search of the automobile itself.  The Court did not suggest that it mattered whether probable cause existed to search the entire vehicle.  It is clear, however, that in neither Chadwick nor Sanders did the police have probable cause to search the vehicle or anything within it except the footlocker in the former case and the green suitcase in the latter.

Robbins v. California, however, was a case in which suspicion was not directed at a specific container.  In that case, the Court for the first time was forced to consider whether police officers who are entitled to conduct a warrantless search of an automobile stopped on a public roadway may open a container found within the vehicle.  In the early morning of January 5, 1975, police officers stopped Robbins’ station wagon because he was driving erratically.  Robbins got out of the car, but later returned to obtain the vehicle’s registration papers.  When he opened the car door, the officers smelled marihuana smoke.  One of the officers searched Robbins and discovered a vial of liquid; in a search of the interior of the car the officer found marihuana.  The police officers then opened the tailgate of the station wagon and raised the cover of a recessed luggage compartment.  In the compartment, they found two packages wrapped in green opaque plastic.  The police unwrapped the packages and discovered a large amount of marihuana in each.

Robbins was charged with various drug offenses, and moved to suppress the contents of the plastic packages.  The California Court of Appeal held that “search of the automobile was proper when the officers learned that appellant was smoking marijuana when they stopped him,” and that the warrantless search of the packages was justified because “the contents of the packages could have been inferred from their outward appearance, so that appellant could not have held a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the contents.”

This Court reversed.  Writing for a plurality, Justice Stewart rejected the argument that the outward appearance of the packages precluded Robbins from having a reasonable expectation of privacy in their contents.  He also squarely rejected the argument that there is a constitutional distinction between searches of luggage and searches of “less worthy” containers.  Justice Stewart reasoned that all containers are equally protected by the Fourth Amendment unless their contents are in plain view.  The plurality concluded that the warrantless search was impermissible because Chadwick and Sanders had established that “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.”

In an opinion concurring in the judgment, JUSTICE POWELL, the author of the Court’s opinion in Sanders, stated that “the plurality’s approach strains the rationales of our prior cases, and imposes substantial burdens on law enforcement without vindicating any significant values of privacy.”  He noted that possibly “the controlling question should be the scope of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement,” and explained that, under that view,

“When the police have probable cause to search an automobile, rather than only to search a particular container that fortuitously is located in it, the exigencies that allow the police to search the entire automobile without a warrant support the warrantless search of every container found therein.  This analysis is entirely consistent with the holdings in Chadwick and Sanders, neither of which is an ‘automobile case,’ because the police there had probable cause to search the double-locked footlocker and the suitcase respectively before either came near an automobile.”

The parties in Robbins had not pressed that argument, however, and JUSTICE POWELL concluded that institutional constraints made it inappropriate to reexamine basic doctrine without full adversary presentation.  He concurred in the judgment, since it was supported—although not compelled—by the Court’s opinion in Sanders, and stated that a future case might present a better opportunity for thorough consideration of the basic principles in this troubled area.

That case has arrived.  Unlike Chadwick and Sanders, in this case, police officers had probable cause to search respondent’s entire vehicle.  Unlike Robbins, in this case, the parties have squarely addressed the question whether, in the course of a legitimate warrantless search of an automobile, police are entitled to open containers found within the vehicle.  We now address that question.  Its answer is determined by the scope of the search that is authorized by the exception to the warrant requirement set forth in Carroll. 

IV. 

In Carroll itself, the whiskey that the prohibition agents seized was not in plain view.  It was discovered only after an officer opened the rumble seat and tore open the upholstery of the lazyback.  The Court did not find the scope of the search unreasonable.  Having stopped Carroll and Kiro on a public road and subjected them to the indignity of a vehicle search—which the Court found to be a reasonable intrusion on their privacy because it was based on probable cause that their vehicle was transporting contraband—prohibition agents were entitled to tear open a portion of the roadster itself.  The scope of the search was no greater than a magistrate could have authorized by issuing a warrant based on the probable cause that justified the search.  Since such a warrant could have authorized the agents to open the rear portion of the roadster and to rip the upholstery in their search for concealed whiskey, the search was constitutionally permissible.

In Chambers v. Maroney, the police found weapons and stolen property “concealed in a compartment under the dashboard.”  No suggestion was made that the scope of the search was impermissible.  It would be illogical to assume that the outcome of Chambers—or the outcome of Carroll itself—would have been different if the police had found the secreted contraband enclosed within a secondary container and had opened that container without a warrant.  If it was reasonable for prohibition agents to rip open the upholstery in Carroll, it certainly would have been reasonable for them to look into a burlap sack stashed inside; if it was reasonable to open the concealed compartment in Chambers, it would have been equally reasonable to open a paper bag crumpled within it.  A contrary rule could produce absurd results inconsistent with the decision in Carroll itself.

In its application of Carroll, this Court, in fact, has sustained warrantless searches of containers found during a lawful search of an automobile.  In Husty v. United States, the Court upheld a warrantless seizure of whiskey found during a search of an automobile, some of which was discovered in “whiskey bags” that could have contained other goods.  In Scher v. United States, federal officers seized and searched packages of unstamped liquor found in the trunk of an automobile searched without a warrant. As described by a police officer who participated in the search:

“I turned the handle and opened the trunk, and found the trunk completely filled with packages wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine; I think somewhere around thirty packages, each one containing six bottles.”

In these cases, it was not contended that police officers needed a warrant to open the whiskey bags or to unwrap the brown paper packages.  These decisions nevertheless “have much weight, as they show that this point neither occurred to the bar or the bench.”  The fact that no such argument was even made illuminates the profession’s understanding of the scope of the search permitted under Carroll.  Indeed, prior to the decisions in Chadwick and Sanders, courts routinely had held that containers and packages found during a legitimate warrantless search of an automobile also could be searched without a warrant.

As we have stated, the decision in Carroll was based on the Court’s appraisal of practical considerations viewed in the perspective of history.  It is therefore significant that the practical consequences of the Carroll decision would be largely nullified if the permissible scope of a warrantless search of an automobile did not include containers and packages found inside the vehicle.  Contraband goods rarely are strewn across the trunk or floor of a car; since, by their very nature, such goods must be withheld from public view, they rarely can be placed in an automobile unless they are enclosed within some form of container.  The Court in Carroll held that “contraband goods concealed and illegally transported in an automobile or other vehicle may be searched for without a warrant.”  As we noted in Henry v. United States, the decision in Carroll “merely relaxed the requirements for a warrant on grounds of practicability.”  It neither broadened nor limited the scope of a lawful search based on probable cause.

A lawful search of fixed premises generally extends to the entire area in which the object of the search may be found, and is not limited by the possibility that separate acts of entry or opening may be required to complete the search.  Thus, a warrant that authorizes an officer to search a home for illegal weapons also provides authority to open closets, chests, drawers, and containers in which the weapon might be found.  A warrant to open a footlocker to search for marihuana would also authorize the opening of packages found inside.  A warrant to search a vehicle would support a search of every part of the vehicle that might contain the object of the search.  When a legitimate search is under way, and when its purpose and its limits have been precisely defined, nice distinctions between closets, drawers, and containers, in the case of a home, or between glove compartments, upholstered seats, trunks, and wrapped packages, in the case of a vehicle, must give way to the interest in the prompt and efficient completion of the task at hand.

This rule applies equally to all containers, as indeed we believe it must.  One point on which the Court was in virtually unanimous agreement in Robbins was that a constitutional distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” containers would be improper.  Even though such a distinction perhaps could evolve in a series of cases in which paper bags, locked trunks, lunch buckets, and orange crates were placed on one side of the line or the other, the central purpose of the Fourth Amendment forecloses such a distinction.  For just as the most frail cottage in the kingdom is absolutely entitled to the same guarantees of privacy as the most majestic mansion, so also may a traveler who carries a toothbrush and a few articles of clothing in a paper bag or knotted scarf claim an equal right to conceal his possessions from official inspection as the sophisticated executive with the locked attaché case.

As Justice Stewart stated in Robbins, the Fourth Amendment provides protection to the owner of every container that conceals its contents from plain view.  But the protection afforded by the Amendment varies in different settings.  The luggage carried by a traveler entering the country may be searched at random by a customs officer; the luggage may be searched no matter how great the traveler’s desire to conceal the contents may be.  A container carried at the time of arrest often may be searched without a warrant and even without any specific suspicion concerning its contents.  A container that may conceal the object of a search authorized by a warrant may be opened immediately; the individual’s interest in privacy must give way to the magistrate’s official determination of probable cause.

In the same manner, an individual’s expectation of privacy in a vehicle and its contents may not survive if probable cause is given to believe that the vehicle is transporting contraband.  Certainly the privacy interests in a car’s trunk or glove compartment may be no less than those in a movable container.  An individual undoubtedly has a significant interest that the upholstery of his automobile will not be ripped or a hidden compartment within it opened.  These interests must yield to the authority of a search, however, which—in light of Carroll—does not itself require the prior approval of a magistrate.  The scope of a warrantless search based on probable cause is no narrower—and no broader—than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant supported by probable cause.  Only the prior approval of the magistrate is waived; the search otherwise is as the magistrate could authorize.

The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile thus is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted.  Rather, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.  Just as probable cause to believe that a stolen lawnmower may be found in a garage will not support a warrant to search an upstairs bedroom, probable cause to believe that undocumented aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase.  Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab. 

V.

Our decision today is inconsistent with the disposition in Robbins v. California and with the portion of the opinion in Arkansas v. Sanders on which the plurality in Robbins relied.  Nevertheless, the doctrine of stare decisis does not preclude this action.  Although we have rejected some of the reasoning in Sanders, we adhere to our holding in that case; although we reject the precise holding in Robbins, there was no Court opinion supporting a single rationale for its judgment, and the reasoning we adopt today was not presented by the parties in that case.  Moreover, it is clear that no legitimate reliance interest can be frustrated by our decision today.  Of greatest importance, we are convinced that the rule we apply in this case is faithful to the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that the Court has followed with substantial consistency throughout our history.

We reaffirm the basic rule of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence stated by Justice Stewart for a unanimous Court in Mincey v. Arizona:

“The Fourth Amendment proscribes all unreasonable searches and seizures, and it is a cardinal principle 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.”

The exception recognized in Carroll is unquestionably one that is “specifically established and well delineated.”  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.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.  The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. 

It is so ordered.


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