Probably the main peculiarity of the warrantless vehicle searches cases is that the question of the existence of the probable cause is left to the discretion of the law enforcement officers. Police officers make their decisions on the basis of the information that is presented to them, and only they are in power to decide whether that information is trustworthy and reliable enough to constitute a probable cause for the arrest or search.
Rule of Law
In Brinegar vs. United States the Supreme Court paid a particular attention to the question of existence of a probable cause in case of a warrantless search of a vehicle. The Court established a so-called “reasonableness test” that set a standard which the officers must adhere to in determining whether the facts and the information that is presented to them indicates that the crime has been/will be/ or is being committed and thus, if that facts or information constitutes a probable cause. The main requirement that this standard sets, is that the warrantless search must be in all respects reasonable. The Court, in its holding, stated that probable cause must be based on the facts and circumstances that are known to the officer, and that these facts are reliable and sufficient enough for a man of reasonable caution to believe that the illegal act is being committed. (Brinegar v. United States,1949)
In Carroll v. United States, the Court established a landmark rule in regard to the warrantless search of vehicles. It was decided that, considering the mobility of the vehicles, the obtaining of the warrant proves to be ineffective and impractical step. Therefore, the police officers are granted with a power to conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle if they have a firm and reasonable belief that the evidence of the crime is placed within that vehicle. As in Brinegar vs. United States, the Court affirmed the necessity to avoid arbitrary and groundless intrusion into the person`s private property, thus stressing the need to establish a reasonable probable cause prior to the search and/or seizure.( Carroll v. United States, 1925)
The question of the trustworthiness of the information and facts, which constitute the probable cause, was discussed in Illinois v. Gates. It is natural that not all the information which is alleged to be the evidence of the crime can be regarded as such. The gossips or hearsay about the alleged crime most likely will not be considered as a credible information that would justify the issuance of the warrant and be regarded as a probable cause of search and/or seizure. Only the information that comes from the crime victim, eyewitness or a police informant will be deemed sufficiently reliable to assume its authenticity. A mere anonymous tip cannot constitute a probable cause. Therefore, the Court established a “totality of circumstances” standard that would oblige a judge to issue a warrant only after the assessment of the corroborated information in its totality and thus make a “practical, common sense decision”.(Illinois v. Gates, 1983)
In Terry vs. Ohio, the Court established the rule that a police officer may stop a person if there is a reasonable and articulate suspicion that this person committed or is committing a crime. Police officer may also conduct a pat-down search for weapons, if there is a suspicion that this individual is armed. This rule equally extends to the detentions of persons in vehicles. Generally, this rule is not qualified as a violation of the Fourth Amendments rights.( Terry v. Ohio, 1968)
In Minnesota v. Dickerson, the Court unanimously held that when a police officer during a lawful pat-down search feels what seems to be contraband, this object can be seized despite the fact that it might not be a weapon or any other illegal object. However, the whole search procedure must be conducted within the limits established by the Terry v. Ohio. (Minnesota v. Dickerson, 1993)
In the following case, we can see that the police officer acted within the legal framework. As recognized in Brinegar vs. United States, the police officer is entitled to conduct a warrantless search if there is a reasonable expectation to believe that the person who is driving a vehicle is somehow involved in the criminal activity. At the same time, the Court recognized that during the course of executing of their duties police officers frequently confront ambiguous and uncertain situations. Therefore, there is always a good chance that the officer might make a factual mistake in determining whether the crime in fact has been committed by the individual who has been stopped. (Brinegar v. United States,1949). In the following case, the police officer based his decision to stop the car on the information and facts that were known to him. Thus, with a certain possibility of mistake, the officer fairly assumed that the owner of that car might be the actual suspect.
In Illinois v. Gates, the Court established that not all information can be regarded as sufficiently reliable in determining of the existence of the probable cause. While the rule of this case mostly applies to the cases of warranted search and seizure, a police officer may apply certain rules of this case during warrantless search. For example, an officer must make his decisions on the basis of corroborated information that comes from a reliable and trustworthy source. (Illinois v. Gates, 1983). Officer Johnson received the information about the suspect and the description of his vehicle from the relative of the kidnapped child who was the eyewitness of the crime, which indicates a fair possibility that the facts presented are reliable, trustworthy and constitute a probable cause for the stop and search of the car that matches the description.
Considering the circumstances of the case, the search of the car was justifiable as the officer had a reason to believe that the kidnapped child was trapped in the trunk of the car. These actions of Officer Johnson fully comply with the rule which was set forth in Carroll v. United States – the officer may conduct a search of the vehicle if there is a strong and reasonable belief that the evidence of the crime is placed within that vehicle.
Terry vs. Ohio reaffirmed the principle that an officer may stop, search and detent a suspect if there is a reason to believe that this person has committed a crime – the rule which was followed by the officer in the discussed case. As to the question of seizure of the objects which were found during a pat-down search, Officer Johnson acted within the rule established in Minnesota v. Dickerson – he felt what strongly resembled a handgun and lawfully seized that object.
Considering the abovementioned facts and the relevant rule of law, we can conclude that the officer acted within his authority and followed the law in regard to the establishing of the probable cause, as well as stop, search and detention of the suspect.
- Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983)
- Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160 (1949)
- Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925)
- Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993)
- Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)