Officers made a controlled delivery of marijuana. The dealer took the packages to his apartment. The officers then observed the defendant enter the dealer’s apartment, where he stayed for about ten minutes. The defendant then reappeared carrying a brown paper bag that appeared full. The bag was the size of one of the wrapped marijuana packages. The defendant placed the package in the trunk of his car and began to drive away. Fearing the loss of evidence, officers, without a warrant, stopped him, opened the trunk and the bag, and found the marijuana.
Whether the Fourth Amendment requires the officers to obtain a warrant to open a container found in a vehicle?
No. In a search extending to a container located in a mobile conveyance, officers may search the container without a warrant where they have probable cause to believe that it holds contraband or evidence.
The Court in Ross took the critical step of holding that closed containers in vehicles can be searched without a warrant because of their presence within that vehicle. The Court saw no principled distinction between the paper bag found by the officers in Ross and the paper bag found by the officers here.
Ross now applies to all searches of containers found in an automobile; i.e., the government may search an automobile and the containers within it if they have probable cause to believe that contraband or evidence is located inside. “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.” However, the Court reaffirmed the principle that “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.”
500 U.S. 565, 111 S. Ct. 1982 (1991)