California v. carney, 471 U.S.386 (1985).

Officers searched defendants mobile home without a warrant and discovered contraband. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search, arguing that the search of his mobile home without a warrant violated his fourth amendment rights.

Held: The court found that the automobile exception applied to the defendant’s mobile home. The automobile exception applies because automobiles are readily mobile. Additionally, individuals have a lesser expectation of privacy in automobiles because automobiles are heavily regulated.

Table of Contents



On May 31, 1979, Drug Enforcement Agent Agent Robert Williams watched Charles Carney, approach a youth in downtown San Diego. The youth accompanied Carney to a Dodge Mini Motor Home parked in a nearby lot. Carney and the youth closed the window shades in the motor home, including one across the front window. Agent Williams had previously received uncorroborated information that the same motor home was used by another person who was exchanging marihuana for sex. 

Williams, with assistance from other agents, kept the motor home under surveillance for the entire one and one-quarter hours that Carney and the youth remained inside. When the youth left the motor home, the agents followed and stopped him. The youth told the agents that he had received marijuana in return for allowing Carney sexual contacts.

At the agents’ request, the youth returned to the motor home and knocked on its door. Carney stepped out. The agents identified themselves as law enforcement officers. Without a warrant or consent, one agent entered the motor home and observed marihuana, plastic bags, and a scale of the kind used in weighing drugs on a table. Agent Williams took Carney into custody and took possession of the motor home. A subsequent search of the motor home at the police station revealed additional marihuana in the cupboards and refrigerator.

Carney was charged with possession of marihuana for sale. At a preliminary hearing, he moved to suppress the evidence discovered in the motor home. The Magistrate denied the motion, and upheld the initial search as a justifiable search for other persons. The magistrate also upheld the subsequent search as a routine inventory search.

The Superior Court also rejected Carney’s claim. The court held that there was probable cause to arrest Carney. And that the search of the motor home was authorized under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Additionally, the motor home itself could be seized without a warrant as an instrumentality of the crime.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed. The California Supreme Court however, reversed the conviction.

The US Supreme Court granted Certiorari.


Whether law enforcement agents violated the Fourth Amendment when they conducted a warrantless search, based on probable cause, of a fully mobile “motor home” located in a public place.


The privacy interests in an automobile are constitutionally protected; however, the ready mobility of the automobile, as well as the lesser expectation of privacy in an automobile justifies a lesser degree of protection thereby creating an exception to the warrant requirement.


The court found that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement applied in this case because: 

1- automobiles are readily mobile

2- Because automobiles are pervasively regulated, there is a lesser expectation of privacy in an automobile.

Here is how the court explained its positions.

This exception to the warrant requirement was first set forth by the Court 60 years ago in Carroll v. United States, There, the Court recognized that the privacy interests in an automobile are constitutionally protected. However, it held that the ready mobility of the automobile justifies a lesser degree of protection of those interests. The Court rested this exception on a long-recognized distinction between stationary structures and vehicles.

The capacity to be “quickly moved” was clearly the basis of the holding in Carroll, and our cases have consistently recognized ready mobility as one of the principal bases of the automobile exception. The mobility of automobiles, we have observed, “creates circumstances of such exigency that, as a practical necessity, rigorous enforcement of the warrant requirement is impossible. 

Even in cases where an automobile was not immediately mobile, the lesser expectation of privacy resulting from its use as a readily mobile vehicle justified application of the vehicular exception. These reduced expectations of privacy derive not from the fact that the area to be searched is in plain view, but from the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways.

The public is fully aware that it is accorded less privacy in its automobiles because of this compelling governmental need for regulation. Historically, individuals always have been on notice that movable vessels may be stopped and searched on facts giving rise to probable cause that the vehicle contains contraband, without the protection afforded by a magistrate’s prior evaluation of those facts. 

In short, the pervasive schemes of regulation, which necessarily lead to reduced expectations of privacy, and the exigencies attendant to ready mobility justify searches without prior recourse to the authority of a magistrate so long as the overriding standard of probable cause is met.

When a vehicle is being used on the highways, or if it is readily capable of such use and is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes-temporary or otherwise-the two justifications for the vehicle exception come into play.

Carney however asked to the court to distinguish his vehicle from other vehicles within the exception because it was capable of functioning as a home.

But the court failed to do so.

The court explained that in our increasingly mobile society, many vehicles used for transportation can be and are being used not only for transportation but for shelter, as a “home” or “residence.” To distinguish between Carney’s motor home and an ordinary sedan for purposes of the vehicle exception would require that we apply the exception depending upon the size of the vehicle and the quality of its appointments. Moreover, to fail to apply the exception to vehicles such as a motor home ignores the fact that a motor home lends itself easily to use as an instrument of illicit drug traffic and other illegal activity. We decline today to distinguish between “worthy” and “unworthy” vehicles which are either on the public roads and highways, or situated such that it is reasonable to conclude that the vehicle is not being used as a residence.

Finally, the court considered whether the search as conducted was reaonable.

Here the court found that the search was reasonable.

The court stated that this search was not unreasonable. It was plainly one that the magistrate could authorize if presented with these facts. The DEA agents had fresh, direct, uncontradicted evidence that the Carney was distributing a controlled substance from the vehicle, apart from evidence of other possible offenses. The agents thus had abundant probable cause to enter and search the vehicle for evidence of a crime notwithstanding its possible use as a dwelling place.


The automobile exception applied to a mobile home because the mobile home is readily mobile and has a lesser expectation of privacy. Additionally, officers search of the automobile was reasonable.

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