Florida v. Wells

PETITIONER: Florida
RESPONDENT: Martin Leslie Wells
LOCATION: K&S Automotive

DOCKET NO.: 88-1835
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court

CITATION: 495 US 1 (1990)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 1989
DECIDED: Apr 18, 1990

ADVOCATES:
Huntley Johnson - on behalf of the Respondent
Michael J. Neimand - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

On February 11, 1985, a Florida Highway Patrol officer stopped Martin Wells for speeding and smelled alcohol on his breath. Wells was arrested for driving under the influence and taken to the police station for a breathalyzer test. While in custody, police told Wells that his car would be impounded, and he granted permission to the officer to open the trunk. An inventory search of the car at the impoundment revealed two marijuana cigarette butts and a locked suitcase in the trunk. Under the direction of a trooper, impoundment employees opened the suitcase and found a garbage bag of marijuana.

Wells was charged with possession of a controlled substance. He moved to suppress the marijuana evidence by arguing that it was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion. Wells pleaded nolo contendere but reserved the right to appeal on the motion to suppress. The Florida District Court of Appeal for the Fifth District reversed the ruling on the motion to suppress, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed.

 

Question

Does the Fourth Amendment allow the police to open closed containers during an inventory search where the suspect gave permission to open the truck where the container was found?

Media for Florida v. Wells

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 04, 1989 in Florida v. Wells

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 18, 1990 in Florida v. Wells

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in Florida versus Wells.

In this case, after the respondent was arrested for driving under the influence, an inventory search of his car turned up a locked suitcase in the trunk.

The police officials opened the suitcase and discovered a garbage bag containing a large quantity of marijuana.

The Florida Supreme Court held that the marijuana should have been suppressed because of the complete absence of any police policy concerning the way they dealt with closed containers that they found during an inventory search like this.

In an opinion filed today, we affirm the ruling of the Florida Supreme Court that the marijuana had to be suppressed.

We do not agree with the Florida Court’s conclusion however, that to comport with the Fourth Amendment, a policy of procedure governing inventory searches must require that either all containers or no containers be opened.

While such policies would be permissible, it would be equally permissible for an inventory search policy to allow police officials to open any containers whose contents they are unable to figure out from looking at the exterior of the container.

Justice Brennan has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment of the Court in which Justice Marshall joins; Justices Blackmun and Stevens have also filed opinions concurring in the judgment.