Two officers were investigating the theft of an interstate shipment of whiskey. On two separate occasions, they witnessed the defendant and another man drive into an alley, enter a residence, and return with cartons that were placed in a vehicle. Prior to this time, the defendant was not suspected of any criminal activity. The officers were too far away to determine the size, number, or contents of the cartons. Following the second observation, the officers seized the vehicle without a search or arrest warrant. The vehicle was searched, and both the cartons and the defendant were placed in the officers’ vehicle and taken to the agents’ office. Once the officers learned the cartons contained stolen radios, the defendant was formally arrested.
Whether the officers had probable cause when they searched the defendant’s vehicle?
No. The officers could not articulate facts to indicate a probability that the defendant was involved in criminal activity or that they would find evidence of criminal activity.
While packages had been stolen, that fact did not make every person seen carrying a package subject to arrest and search. It also did not make every package subject to seizure. The acts of driving a car in an alley, walking inside residential premises, picking up cartons, and carrying the cartons away, were, without more, not indications of criminal activity. There was no evidence that the defendant and the other man were acting secretly or in an evasive manner. The officers had no idea what was in the cartons when they seized the car. Therefore, their observations did not amount to probable cause.
361 U.S. 98, 80 S. Ct. 168 (1959)