Federal “Automobile Exception,” According to Some Courts, Allows Warrantless Searches of Cars Without Exigent Circumstances

In most circumstances, a warrantless search by police violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Courts have identified exceptions to this rule, however, when police have probable cause to believe that a search will yield evidence of a crime, and “exigent circumstances” make it likely that delaying the search to obtain a warrant would result in the loss or destruction of the evidence. Many states, including Texas, have also adopted an exception to the “exigent circumstances” requirement, known as the “automobile exception.” Pennsylvania became the most recent state to adopt the automobile exception, in Pennsylvania v. Gary, No. 26 EAP 2012, slip op. (Pa., Apr. 29, 2014).

The defendant in Gary was convicted of drug possession after police found about two pounds of marijuana during a search of his vehicle. Police claimed that they stopped the defendant because they believed that his tinted windows violated the state Motor Vehicle Code. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officers claimed to smell marijuana. They asked “if there was anything in his vehicle that the officers need to know about,” Gary, slip op. at 2 (quotations omitted), and he reportedly admitted that he had some “weed.” They removed the defendant from the vehicle and found the marijuana under the front hood.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the police had both probable cause and exigent circumstances, in part because the defendant was not technically under arrest and could have left with the contraband. The appellate court reversed the court’s order, finding that because the defendant was in police custody, there was no “imperative need for prompt police action.” Id. at 4, quoting Pa. v. Gary, 29 A.3d 804, 808 (Pa. Super. 2011). Prosecutors appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the appellate court. It expressly adopted the federal “automobile exception,” which states that the warrantless search of a vehicle requires probable cause, but not exigent circumstances. The exception originated during Prohibition, when prosecutors successfully argued that automobiles presented a unique risk because of their mobility. Gary, slip op. at 9, citing Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925).

The U.S. Supreme Court has since expanded the automobile exception to include “circumstances where there was no immediate danger” of losing evidence. Gary, slip op. at 10. It has identified two factors supporting the automobile exception: the “compelling governmental need for regulation [of automobiles]…which necessarily lead[s] to reduced expectations of privacy,” and “the exigencies attendant to ready mobility.” Id. at 13, quoting California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 392 (1985).

Texas courts have adopted the automobile exception at both the state and federal level. A state appellate court recently affirmed the denial of a motion to suppress specifically based on the automobile exception. Barnes v. State, 424 S.W.3d 218, 226 (Tex. App.–Amarillo 2014), citing Keehn v. State, 279 S.W.3d 330, 335 (Tex. Crim. App. 2009). The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals offered a more nuanced view of the exception when it recently vacated a sentence and remanded the case, finding that the trial court did not adequately address the question of whether the defendant voluntarily consented to a vehicle search. United States v. Guzman, 739 F.3d 241 (5th Cir. 2014).

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown represents west Texas defendants charged with alleged offenses related to drugs, white collar crime, and other matters. To schedule a confidential consultation, please contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Rules that, in Some Circumstances, One Resident May Consent to a Search by Police Even When Another Resident Refuses, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 1, 2014
Officer Testimony Trumps Video Evidence, Court Holds, in Establishing Probable Cause for Traffic Stop, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 25, 2014
Magistrate Could Find Probable Cause for Search Warrant, Texas Court Rules, Despite Presence of Unknowing Third Party During Controlled Drug Purchase, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, March 14, 2014

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