Most police officers are aware of the warrantless search exceptions that apply to motor vehicles. They know that they may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle, and any containers found inside, when the driver of the vehicle has been arrested, 1 although the Ohio Supreme Court has placed some limitiations on the specific containers which an officer can search. 2 They also know that they can perform a pat-down of the driver, as well a protective sweep of the area in the vehicle surrounding the driver, when they "possess an articulable and objectively reasonable belief that the suspect is potentially dangerous." 3 However, officers often become confused as to whether they may search a motor vehicle after it has been towed and safely impounded, and we are often asked the question: "Do we need to get a search warrant now?"
If officers have sufficient probable cause to search a vehicle that has been towed and impounded, the answer to that question is "No." The original warrantless search exception for motor vehicles was created in Carroll v. United States 4 to address the secretive transportation of alcoholic beverages by trucks and automobiles during the Prohibition Era. In Carroll, the United States Supreme Court upheld the probable cause search of a motor vehicle, without a warrant, due to the fact that the vehicle was easily moveable; the vehicle's mobility created exigent cricumstances which would allow officers to dispense with the usual warrant requirement. Since then, most officers have assumed that they must prove the existence of exigent circumstances in order to conduct a warrantless search, and that once the vehicle has been secured, they must obtain a search warrant. Later case law establishes that these assumptions are not well founded.
In United States v. Johns, 5 the United States Supreme Court specifically stated:
A vehicle lawfully in police custody may be searched on the basis of probable cause to believe that it contains contraband, and there is no requirement of exigent circumstances to justify such a warrantless search. 6
Although this rule has not been addressed in Ohio's published case law, unreported decisions reveal that Ohio appellate courts have followed the rule. 7
The high court has also held:
The scope of warrantless searches based on probable cause is no narrower - and no broader - than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant supported by probable cause. Only the prior approval of a magistrate is waived; the search is otherwise as the magistrate could authorize. 8
These Supreme Court decisions seem to make it clear that, when considering the search of a motor vehicle:
No exigent circumstances required!
1 New York v. Belton (1981), 453 U.S. 454.
2 State v. Brown (1992), 63 Ohio St. 3d 349.
3 Michigan v. Long (1983), 463 U.S. 1032, 1049; see also State v. Bobo (1988), 37 Ohio St. 3d 177.
4 (1925), 267 U.S. 132.
5 (1985), 469 U.S. 478, 105 S.Ct. 881.
6 Id. at 105 S.Ct. 885.
7 State v. Geisler (Aug.26,1996), Athens App. No. 95CA1697, unreported; State v. Napier (May 27, 1998), Medina App. No. 2671-M, unreported.
8 United States v. Ross (1982), 456 U.S. 798, 823.