Question: If a car is parked, locked, and otherwise secure, do you need a warrant to search the car if you have probable cause to believe it contains drugs?
Quick answer: No. You may conduct a warrantless search under the automobile exception.
Facts: The Columbus Division of Police obtained a search warrant for a suspected drug house. Earlier in the day, a confidential informant (CI) told officers that a drug delivery was on its way to the house. Officers had been staking out the house for a few hours when Chaswan Battle pulled up in a black SUV. A passenger from the SUV carried a white shoebox into the house. The CI then entered the house, leaving shortly afterward. Only the CI’s feet could be seen at that time because a van blocked the front door, but officers noticed another person follow the CI outside. Once the van pulled away, they learned that the other person was Battle, and he was standing at his SUV with the back car door open. Officers could not see what Battle was doing inside the car. A few minutes later, the CI told police he had seen drugs in the house, so they began their raid, arresting Battle and others inside but finding no drugs. Officers specifically looked for the white shoebox because they believed it contained drugs. They could not locate the box in the house, leading them to believe the drugs were in Battle’s car. Officers searched Battle’s parked SUV and found the white shoebox, containing one kilo of cocaine, in the back seat. The trial court suppressed the drugs, finding that the automobile exception did not apply because there was no “exigent circumstance” preventing them from getting a warrant.
Why the case is important: The officers reasonably followed all of the evidence to the most logical conclusion: The drugs were in the car. Therefore, the Ohio court of appeals found there was probable cause to allow a warrantless search of Battle’s SUV under the automobile exception. Several facts provided officers with probable cause to search the car: (1) Officers were told by an informant that the drugs were “on their way.” (2) Battle pulled up and entered the home with someone carrying a shoebox. (3) The informant reported seeing drugs in the home. (4) A van blocked officers’ view of Battle leaving the apartment, but shortly afterward, they saw him in the back of his SUV with the car door open. (5) During the drug raid, no drugs were found in the home. Unlike the trial court, the court of appeals ruled there is no “exigency” requirement for the automobile exception. If a car is readily mobile and there is probable cause to believe the car contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment allows police to search it without a warrant.
Keep in mind: Whenever possible, always obtain a search warrant. But when you have probable cause to believe there are drugs in a vehicle, you can search the vehicle without a warrant even if it is parked and locked. You do not need an “exigent circumstance” before conducting a warrantless search of a secure car.
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