Container Searches  (See Full Document for Citations)


When police have reasonable suspicion that evidence of criminal activity or contraband is located in a movable container, they may secure the container to prevent its loss or destruction or to perform a dog-sniff test. However, a warrant is required to search the container unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. The police may conduct a warrantless search of any container located in an automobile if probable cause exists to search the container itself or the automobile as a whole. Similarly, no warrant is necessary to search a container if its illicit contents are in plain view or may be inferred from the container's outward characteristics, if the container is abandoned, or if the container search is simply repeated to the extent of a previously conducted private search.

Other exceptions to the warrant requirement may apply after a lawful seizure of an individual or a container. For example, following a custodial arrest, the police may search any container within the arrestee's “immediate control,” including those on the arrestee's person and those found in an “area from within which [the arrestee] might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” In the automobile context, the Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean the area that the suspect can reach if unsecured at the time of the search. Containers can also be searched if police have reason to believe they contain evidence of the crime for which the suspect was arrested.