An officer overheard the defendant arrange what appeared to be a drug transaction over a public telephone. The officer followed the defendant and observed his failure to obey a traffic control device. The officer pulled the defendant over to the side of the road to issue him a traffic citation. The officer told the defendant he had been stopped for a traffic infraction, but went on to explain that he had reason to believe the defendant was transporting narcotics in the car, and asked permission to search. The officer told the defendant that he did not have to consent to a search of the car. The defendant told the officer he had nothing to hide, and gave consent to search the car. The officer found a folded brown paper bag on the floorboard on the passenger side of the car. The officer opened the bag and found cocaine inside.
Whether it is reasonable for an officer to consider a suspect’s general consent to a search of his car to include consent to examine containers therein?
Yes. The officer’s request to search the car for narcotics reasonably included containers in which narcotics could be found.
The Fourth Amendment is satisfied when, under the circumstances, it is objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that the scope of the suspect’s consent permitted him to open a particular container within the automobile. The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness. The Fourth Amendment does not proscribe all searches, only those which are unreasonable.
The Court has long approved consensual searches because it is reasonable for law enforcement officers to conduct a search once they have been permitted to do so. However, the scope of a search is generally limited by its expressed object. A suspect may limit the scope of the search to which he consents. In this case, the terms of the authorization to search were simple. The defendant granted the officer permission to search his car and did not place any express limitation on the scope of the search. The officer had informed the defendant that he would be looking for narcotics in the car. Therefore it was reasonable for the officer to conclude that the general consent to search the car included consent to search containers within that car that might contain drugs
500 U.S. 297, 111 S. Ct. 1801 (1991)
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