United States v. Ross
Decided June 1, 1982, 456 US 798


A. Issues Discussed: Search and seizure

B. Legal Question Presented:

To extent may police officers, who have legitimately stopped an automobile and who have probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it, conduct a probing search of compartments and containers within the vehicle whose contents are not in plain view?


A. Background:

"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....

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... 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....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."

On certiorari the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side

Brief of amici curiae urging affirmance by Raymond C. Clevenger III, John F. Cooney, Arthur B. Spitzer, and Charles S. Sims filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.

William J. Garber argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Dennis M. Hart.

Brief of amici curiae urging reversal by Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W. Schmidt, and James P. Manak filed a brief for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al.

Deputy Solicitor General Frey argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Jensen, Joshua I. Schwartz, and John Fichter De Pue.


"...[S]ince 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...

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...

The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile... 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...

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 US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia's.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con
  • Stevens, J.P. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia's judgment; the Supreme Court reversed and remanded in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.