Justice Scalia, delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether police officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they search a passenger's personal belongings inside an automobile that they have probable cause to believe contains contraband.
In the early morning hours of July 23, 1995, a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer stopped an automobile for speeding and driving with a faulty brake light. There were three
At this point, the backup officers ordered the two female passengers out of the car and asked them for identification. Respondent falsely identified herself as "Sandra James" and stated that she did not have any identification. Meanwhile, in light of Young's admission, the officer searched the passenger compartment of the car for contraband. On the back seat, he found a purse, which respondent claimed as hers. He removed from the purse a wallet containing respondent's driver's license, identifying her properly as Sandra K. Houghton. When the officer asked her why she had lied about her name, she replied: "In case things went bad."
Continuing his search of the purse, the officer found a brown pouch and a black wallet-type container. Respondent denied that the former was hers, and claimed ignorance of how it came to be there; it was found to contain drug paraphernalia and a syringe with 60 ccs of methamphetamine. Respondent admitted ownership of the black container, which was also found to contain drug paraphernalia, and a syringe (which respondent acknowledged was hers) with 10 ccs of methamphetamine—an amount insufficient to support the felony conviction at issue in this case. The officer also found fresh needle-track marks on respondent's arms. He placed her under arrest.
The State of Wyoming charged respondent with felony possession of methamphetamine in a liquid amount greater than three-tenths of a gram. See Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-71031(c)(iii) (Supp. 1996). After a hearing, the trial court denied
The Wyoming Supreme Court, by divided vote, reversed the conviction and announced the following rule:
The court held that the search of respondent's purse violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments because the officer "knew or should have known that the purse did not belong to the driver, but to one of the passengers," and because "there was no probable cause to search the passengers' personal effects and no reason to believe that contraband had been placed within the purse." Ibid. We granted certiorari, 524 U.S. 983 (1998).
The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." In determining whether a particular governmental action violates this provision, we inquire first whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search or seizure under the common law when the Amendment was framed. See Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 931 (1995); California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 624 (1991). Where that inquiry yields no answer, we must
It is uncontested in the present case that the police officers had probable cause to believe there were illegal drugs in the car. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), similarly involved the warrantless search of a car that law enforcement officials had probable cause to believe contained contraband—in that case, bootleg liquor. The Court concluded that the Framers would have regarded such a search as reasonable in light of legislation enacted by Congress from 1789 through 1799—as well as subsequent legislation from the founding era and beyond—that empowered customs officials to search any ship or vessel without a warrant if they had probable cause to believe that it contained goods subject to a duty. Id., at 150-153. See also United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 806 (1982); Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 623-624 (1886). Thus, the Court held that "contraband goods concealed and illegally transported in an automobile or other vehicle may be searched for without a warrant" where probable cause exists. Carroll, supra, at 153.
We have furthermore read the historical evidence to show that the Framers would have regarded as reasonable (if there was probable cause) the warrantless search of containers within an automobile. In Ross, supra, we upheld as reasonable the warrantless search of a paper bag and leather pouch found in the trunk of the defendant's car by officers who had probable cause to believe that the trunk contained drugs. Justice Stevens, writing for the Court, observed:
Ross summarized its holding as follows: "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." Id., at 825 (emphasis added). And our later cases describing Ross have characterized it as applying broadly to all containers within a car, without qualification as to ownership. See, e. g., California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 572 (1991) ("[T]his Court in Ross took the critical step of saying that closed containers in cars could be searched without a warrant because of their presence within the automobile"); United States v. Johns, 469 U.S. 478, 479-480 (1985) (Ross "held that if police officers have probable cause to search a lawfully stopped vehicle, they may conduct a warrantless search of any containers found inside that may conceal the object of the search").
To be sure, there was no passenger in Ross, and it was not claimed that the package in the trunk belonged to anyone other than the driver. Even so, if the rule of law that Ross announced were limited to contents belonging to the driver, or contents other than those belonging to passengers, one would have expected that substantial limitation to be expressed.
Finally, we must observe that the analytical principle underlying the rule announced in Ross is fully consistent—as respondent's proposal is not—with the balance of our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Ross concluded from the historical evidence that the permissible scope of a warrantless car search "is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found." 456 U. S., at 824. The same principle is reflected in an earlier case involving the constitutionality of a search warrant directed at premises belonging to one who is not suspected of any crime: "The critical element in a reasonable search is not that the owner of the property is suspected of crime but that there is reasonable cause to believe that the specific `things' to be searched for and seized are located on the property to which entry is sought." Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547, 556 (1978). This statement was illustrated by citation and description of Carroll, 267 U. S., at 158-159, 167. 436 U. S., at 556-557.
In sum, neither Ross itself nor the historical evidence it relied upon admits of a distinction among packages or containers based on ownership. When there is probable cause to search for contraband in a car, it is reasonable for police officers—like customs officials in the founding era—to examine packages and containers without a showing of individualized probable cause for each one. A passenger's personal belongings, just like the driver's belongings or containers attached to the car like a glove compartment, are "in" the car, and the officer has probable cause to search for contraband in the car.
In this regard—the degree of intrusiveness upon personal privacy and indeed even personal dignity—the two cases the Wyoming Supreme Court found dispositive differ substantially from the package search at issue here. United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581 (1948), held that probable cause to search a car did not justify a body search of a passenger. And Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85 (1979), held that a search warrant for a tavern and its bartender did not permit body searches of all the bar's patrons. These cases turned on the unique, significantly heightened protection afforded against searches of one's person. "Even a limited search of the outer clothing . . . constitutes a severe, though brief, intrusion upon cherished personal security, and it must surely be an annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating experience." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 24-25 (1968). Such traumatic consequences are not to be expected when the police examine an item of personal property found in a car.
To be sure, these factors favoring a search will not always be present, but the balancing of interests must be conducted with an eye to the generality of cases. To require that the investigating officer have positive reason to believe that the passenger and driver were engaged in a common enterprise, or positive reason to believe that the driver had time and occasion to conceal the item in the passenger's belongings, surreptitiously or with friendly permission, is to impose requirements so seldom met that a "passenger's property" rule would dramatically reduce the ability to find and seize contraband and evidence of crime. Of course these requirements would not attach (under the Wyoming Supreme Court's rule) until the police officer knows or has reason to know that the container belongs to a passenger. But once a "passenger's property" exception to car searches became widely known, one would expect passenger-confederates to claim everything as their own. And one would anticipate a bog of litigation—in the form of both civil lawsuits and motions to suppress in criminal trials—involving such questions as whether the officer should have believed a passenger's claim of ownership, whether he should have inferred ownership from various objective factors, whether he had probable cause to believe that the passenger was a confederate, or to believe that the driver might have introduced the contraband
Finally, if we were to invent an exception from the historical practice that Ross accurately described and summarized, it is perplexing why that exception should protect only property belonging to a passenger, rather than (what seems much more logical) property belonging to anyone other than the driver. Surely Houghton's privacy would have been invaded to the same degree whether she was present or absent when her purse was searched. And surely her presence in the car with the driver provided more, rather than less, reason to believe that the two were in league. It may ordinarily be easier to identify the property as belonging to someone other than the driver when the purported owner is present to identify it—but in the many cases (like Ross itself) where the car is seized, that identification may occur later, at the station
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We hold that police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers' belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search. The judgment of the Wyoming Supreme Court is reversed.
It is so ordered.
Justice Breyer, concurring.
I join the Court's opinion with the understanding that history is meant to inform, but not automatically to determine, the answer to a Fourth Amendment question. Ante, at 299300. I also agree with the Court that when a police officer has probable cause to search a car, say, for drugs, it is reasonable for that officer also to search containers within the car. If the police must establish a container's ownership prior to the search of that container (whenever, for example, a passenger says "that's mine"), the resulting uncertainty will destroy the workability of the bright-line rule set forth in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982). At the same time, police officers with probable cause to search a car for drugs would often have probable cause to search containers regardless. Hence a bright-line rule will authorize only a limited number of searches that the law would not otherwise justify.
At the same time, I would point out certain limitations upon the scope of the bright-line rule that the Court describes.
Less obviously, but in my view also important, is the fact that the container here at issue, a woman's purse, was found at a considerable distance from its owner, who did not claim ownership until the officer discovered her identification while looking through it. Purses are special containers. They are repositories of especially personal items that people generally like to keep with them at all times. So I am tempted to say that a search of a purse involves an intrusion so similar to a search of one's person that the same rule should govern both. However, given this Court's prior cases, I cannot argue that the fact that the container was a purse automatically makes a legal difference, for the Court has warned against trying to make that kind of distinction. United States v. Ross, supra, at 822. But I can say that it would matter if a woman's purse, like a man's billfold, were attached to her person. It might then amount to a kind of "outer clothing," Terry v. Ohio, supra, at 24, which under the Court's cases would properly receive increased protection. See post, at 312-313 (Stevens, J., dissenting) (quoting United States v. Di Re, supra, at 587). In this case, the purse was separate from the person, and no one has claimed that, under those circumstances, the type of container makes a difference. For that reason, I join the Court's opinion.
After Wyoming's highest court decided that a state highway patrolman unlawfully searched Sandra Houghton's purse, the State of Wyoming petitioned for a writ of certiorari. The State asked that we consider the propriety of searching an automobile passenger's belongings when the government has developed probable cause to search the vehicle for contraband based on the driver's conduct. The State conceded that the trooper who searched Houghton's purse lacked a warrant, consent, or "probable cause specific to the purse or passenger." Pet. for Cert. i. In light of our established preference for warrants and individualized suspicion, I would respect the result reached by the Wyoming Supreme Court and affirm its judgment.
In all of our prior cases applying the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, either the defendant was the operator of the vehicle and in custody of the object of the search, or no question was raised as to the defendant's ownership or custody.
Even apart from Di Re, the Court's rights-restrictive approach is not dictated by precedent. For example, in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982), we were concerned with the interest of the driver in the integrity of "his automobile," id., at 823, and we categorically rejected the notion that the scope of a warrantless search of a vehicle might be "defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted," id., at 824. "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." Ibid. We thus disapproved of a possible container-based distinction between a man's pocket and a woman's pocketbook. Ironically, while we concluded in Ross that "[p]robable 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., the rule the Court fashions would apparently permit a warrantless search of a passenger's briefcase if there is probable cause to believe the taxidriver had a syringe somewhere in his vehicle.
Nor am I persuaded that the mere spatial association between a passenger and a driver provides an acceptable basis for presuming that they are partners in crime or for ignoring privacy interests in a purse.
Finally, in my view, the State's legitimate interest in effective law enforcement does not outweigh the privacy concerns at issue.
I would decide this case in accord with what we have said about passengers and privacy, rather than what we might have said in cases where the issue was not squarely presented. See ante, at 301-302. What Justice Jackson wrote for the Court 50 years ago is just as sound today:
Accord, Ross, 456 U. S., at 823, 825 (the proper scope of a warrantless automobile search based on probable cause is "no broader" than the proper scope of a search authorized
I respectfully dissent.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Legal Aid Society of New York City et al. by M. Sue Wycoff; for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers by Paul Mogin and Lisa B. Kemler; and for the Rutherford Institute by Steven H. Aden and John W. Whitehead.
In its peroration, however, the dissent quotes extensively from Justice Jackson's opinion in Di Re, which makes it very clear that it is precisely this distinction between search of the person and search of property that the case relied upon:
"The Government says it would not contend that, armed with a search warrant for a residence only, it could search all persons found in it. But an occupant of a house could be used to conceal this contraband on his person quite as readily as can an occupant of a car." 332 U. S., at 587 (quoted post, at 312). Does the dissent really believe that Justice Jackson was saying that a house search could not inspect property belonging to persons found in the house—say a large standing safe or violin case belonging to the owner's visiting godfather? Of course that is not what Justice Jackson meant at all. He was referring precisely to that "distinction between property contained in clothing worn by a passenger and property contained in a passenger's briefcase or purse" that the dissent disparages, post, at 309. This distinction between searches of the person and searches of property is assuredly not "newly minted," see post, at 310. And if the dissent thinks "pockets" and "clothing" do not count as part of the person, it must believe that the only searches of the person are strip searches.