Wyoming v. Houghton

LOCATION:Kimberley Thompson’s Apartment

DOCKET NO.: 98-184
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Wyoming Supreme Court

CITATION: 526 US 295 (1999)
ARGUED: Jan 12, 1999
DECIDED: Apr 05, 1999

Barbara B. McDowell – Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Donna D. Domonkos – Argued the cause for the respondent
Paul S. Rehurek – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

After pulling Sandra Haughton’s friend over during a routine traffic stop, a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer noticed a needle in the driver’s shirt pocket. Upon learning that the needle was used for drugs, the officer searched the car and Haughton’s purse, where he found more drug paraphernalia. Haughton challenged her subsequent arrest on drug charges, alleging that the officer’s search of her purse was unconstitutional. On appeal from an adverse appeals court ruling, overturning a favorable trial court decision, the Supreme Court granted Wyoming certiorari.


May police officers, with probable cause to search a car, inspect personal items belonging to its passengers without violating the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches?

Media for Wyoming v. Houghton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 12, 1999 in Wyoming v. Houghton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 05, 1999 in Wyoming v. Houghton

William H. Rehnquist:

The second case is Wyoming against Houghton 98-184.

During a routine traffic stop, a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer noticed a hypodermic syringe in the driver’s shirt pocket.

With refreshing candor, the driver admitted that he used the syringe to take drugs.

On the basis of that statement the officer ordered the driver and his two women passengers including respondent out of the car, while he searched the vehicle for contraband.

One of the items he searched was respondent’s purse sitting on the backseat.

Inside the purse he found drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Respondent was convicted on drug possession charges, but the Wyoming Supreme Court reversed her conviction, holding that the search of the purse violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer didn’t have probable cause to believe the respondent or a person particular was concealing contraband.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today and authored by Justice Scalia, we reverse the decision of the Supreme Court of Wyoming.

Probable cause to search a car extends all containers in the car capable of concealing the object of the search.

In previous cases we have held it is reasonable to conduct a warrant less search of a car that police have probable cause to believe contains contraband and that search may extend all containers within the car capable of holding the contraband.

The historical understanding of the Fourth Amendment of those cases rely on does not admit of the distinction based upon ownership of the contraband.

Justice Breyer has filed a concurring opinion and Justice Stevens joined by Justices Ginsburg and Souter has filed a dissenting opinion.