California v. Acevedo

LOCATION:Acevedo’s Car

DOCKET NO.: 89-1690
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 500 US 565 (1991)
ARGUED: Jan 08, 1991
DECIDED: May 30, 1991

Fred W. Anderson – on behalf of the Respondent
Robert Foster – on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

California police officers saw Charles Acevedo enter an apartment known to contain several packages of marijuana and leave a short time later carrying a paper bag approximately the same size as one of the packages. When Acevedo put the bag in the trunk of his car and began to drive away, the officers stopped the car, searched the bag, and found marijuana. At his trial, Avecedo made a motion to suppress the marijuana as evidence, since the police had not had a search warrant. When the trial court denied his motion, Acevedo pleaded guilty and appealed the denial of the motion. The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, ruling that the marijuana should have been suppressed as evidence. The Supreme Court had ruled previously that officers can thoroughly search an automobile if they have probable cause to believe there is evidence somewhere in the vehicle (U.S. v. Ross ), and also that officers need a warrant to search a closed container (U.S. v. Chadwick ). The California Court of Appeal decided that the latter case was more relevant. Since the officers only had probable cause to believe the bag contained evidence – not the car generally – they could not open the bag without a search warrant. The California Supreme Court denied review, but the Supreme Court granted the State’s petition.


Under the Fourth Amendment, may police conduct a warrantless search of a container within an automobile if they have probable cause to believe that the container holds evidence?

Media for California v. Acevedo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 08, 1991 in California v. Acevedo

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 30, 1991 in California v. Acevedo

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice Blackmun.

Harry A. Blackmun:

The first case is No. 89-1690, California against Acevedo.

The case comes to us from the Court of Appeals of California and it is another one having to do with the validity of an automobile search.

The police observed the respondent leaving an apartment was known to contain marijuana with a brown paper bag, the usual brown paper back, and he placed the bag in the trunk of his car, the police stopped the car, opened the trunk and the bag and found marijuana.

The respondent’s motion to suppress the drug was denied and he then pleaded guilty.

California Court of Appeals held that the marijuana should have been suppressed.

It found the officers had probable cause to believe that the bag contained drugs, but lacked probable cause to suspect that the car, itself, otherwise contained contraband.

And it concluded that the paper bag could not be opened without a warrant.

In an opinion filed today, we reverse that judgment.

In a search extending only to a container within an automobile, the police may search the container without a warrant where they have probable cause to believe that it holds contraband.

In the case of Carroll against the United States, decided in 1925, provides one rule to govern all automobile searches.

The doctrine of stare decisis does not preclude the court from eliminating the warrant required in the case of Arkansas against Sanders decided in 1979 which we feel affords minimal protection to a privacy interest.

This holding does not extend the carroll doctrine nor does it broaden the scope of permissible automobile searches.

Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice White has filed a dissenting statement and would affirm the judgment below.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion and is joined therein by Justice Marshall.