California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991)

Officers had probable cause to believe that a brown paper bag in the trunk of defendants vehicle contained contraband. Police searched the trunk of the vehicle without a warrant. Defendant argued that although police may have had probable cause to search the container without a warrant, they had no probable cause to search the car without a warrant.

Held: The court ruled that where officers have probable cause to believe that a container in a car contains contraband, officers can search the area of the car where the contraband can reasonably be found.

Table of Contents



On October 28, 1987, Officer Coleman of the Santa Ana, Cal., Police Department received a telephone call from a federal drug enforcement agent in Hawaii. The agent informed Coleman that he had seized a package containing marijuana which was meant be delivered to the Federal Express Office in Santa Ana and which was addressed to J.R. Daza at 805 West Stevens Avenue in that city. The agent arranged to send the package to Coleman instead. The plan was for Coleman to take the package to the Federal Express office and arrest the person who arrived to claim it.

Coleman received the package on October 29, verified its contents, and took it to the Senior Operations Manager at the Federal Express office. At about 10:30 a.m. on October 30, a man, who identified himself as Jamie Daza, arrived to claim the package. He accepted it and drove to his apartment on West Stevens. He carried the package into the apartment.

At 11:45 a.m., officers observed Daza leave the apartment and drop the box and paper that had contained the marijuana into a trash bin. 

Coleman at that point left the scene to get a search warrant. About 12:05 p.m., the officers saw Richard St. George leave the apartment carrying a blue knapsack which appeared to be half full. The officers stopped him as he was driving off, searched the knapsack, and found 1 ½ pounds of marijuana.

At 12:30 p.m., defendant Charles Steven Acevedo arrived. He entered Daza’s apartment, stayed for about 10 minutes, and reappeared carrying a brown paper bag that looked full. The officers noticed that the bag was the size of one of the wrapped marijuana packages sent from Hawaii. Acevedo walked to a silver Honda in the parking lot. He placed the bag in the trunk of the car and started to drive away. 

Fearing the loss of evidence, officers in a marked police car stopped him. They opened the trunk and the bag, and found marijuana.

Acevedo was charged in state court with possession of marijuana for sale. He moved to suppress the marijuana found in the car. The motion was denied. He then pleaded guilty but appealed the denial of the suppression motion.

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, concluded that the marijuana found in the paper bag in the car’s trunk should have been suppressed. The court concluded that the officers had probable cause to believe that the paper bag contained drugs but lacked probable cause to suspect that Acevedo’s car, itself, otherwise contained contraband.

The Supreme Court of California denied the State’s petition for review. The US Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Whether officers, without a warrant, can search a sack in a movable vehicle when they lack probable cause to search the entire car.


Where officers have probable cause to believe that a container in a vehicle contains contraband, the officers may search the part of the vehicle where the contraband can reasonably be found, without a warrant.


To fully understand this case, it is important to know the following prior rulings by the court on a search of vehicles without a warrant, where there is probable cause to either search the vehicle or a container in the vehicle.

In Carroll v. United States, the court held that where officers have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contained evidence of a crime, in light of an exigency arising out of the likely disappearance of the vehicle, a warrantless search of the vehicle does not violate the fourth amendment.

In Chambers v United States, the court expanded the Carroll ruling and held that if the police have probable cause to justify a warrantless seizure of an automobile on a public roadway, they may conduct either an immediate or a delayed search of the vehicle.


And in the United States v. Ross the court held that a warrantless search of an automobile under the Carroll doctrine could include a search of a container or package found inside the car when such a search was supported by probable cause. That is, if probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.

The court found that the facts of this case similar to the ruling in Ross and therefore upheld the ruling in Ross.

Here is how the court explained its position:

The facts in this case closely resemble the facts in Ross. In Ross, the police had probable cause to believe that drugs were stored in the trunk of a particular car. Here, the California Court of Appeal concluded that the police had probable cause to believe that Ross was carrying marijuana in a bag in his car’s trunk. Furthermore, for what it is worth, in Ross, as here, the drugs in the trunk were contained in a brown paper bag.

In failing to distinguish between probable cause to search a vehicle and probable cause to search a container within the vehicle, the court stated that:

We now agree that a container found after a general search of the automobile and a container found in a car after a limited search for the container are equally easy for the police to store and for the suspect to hide or destroy. In fact, we see no principled distinction in terms of either the privacy expectation or the exigent circumstances between the paper bag found by the police in Ross and the paper bag found by the police here. Furthermore, by attempting to distinguish between a container for which the police are specifically searching and a container which they come across in a car, we have provided only minimal protection for privacy and have impeded effective law enforcement.

The line between probable cause to search a vehicle and probable cause to search a package in that vehicle is not always clear, and separate rules that govern the two objects to be searched may enable the police to broaden their power to make warrantless searches and disserve privacy interests. We noted this in Ross in the context of a search of an entire vehicle. Recognizing that under Carroll, the entire vehicle itself … could be searched without a warrant, we concluded that prohibiting police from opening immediately a container in which the object of the search is most likely to be found and instead forcing them first to comb the entire vehicle would actually exacerbate the intrusion on privacy interests. At the moment when officers stop an automobile, it may be less than clear whether they suspect with a high degree of certainty that the vehicle contains drugs in a bag or simply contains drugs. If the police know that they may open a bag only if they are actually searching the entire car, they may search more extensively than they otherwise would in order to establish the general probable cause required by Ross.

The interpretation of the Carroll doctrine set forth in Ross now applies to all searches of containers found in an automobile. In other words, the police may search without a warrant if their search is supported by probable cause. The Court in Ross put it this way:

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.

It went on to note: “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.” Ibid. We reaffirm that principle. In the case before us, the police had probable cause to believe that the paper bag in the automobile’s trunk contained marijuana. That probable cause now allows a warrantless search of the paper bag. The facts in the record reveal that the police did not have probable cause to believe that contraband was hidden in any other part of the automobile and a search of the entire vehicle would have been without probable cause and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.


The judgment of the California court of appeals was reversed and the case was remanded.

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