The Federal and Massachusetts Constitutions typically prohibit police officers from searching private locations without first obtaining a warrant. The warrant requirement, however, does not generally apply to automobiles. The United States Supreme Court and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have ruled that when the police have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a car that is in a public place, they may search the car without a warrant. These warrantless searches are justified for two reasons. First, motor vehicles are inherently mobile. Therefore, if the police were forced to wait for a warrant to search, there would be a substantial risk that the evidence or contraband would be moved. Second, we all have a reduced expectation of privacy in the items we keep in our cars (as opposed to items we keep in our homes or offices, for example) because our cars are subject to considerable governmental regulations.
- The automobile exception applies only to vehicles that are either stopped by the police in transit or are parked in a public location (such as on a road or in a parking lot accessible to the public).
- Although it seems counterintuitive, it is not required that a search pursuant to the automobile exception occur immediately. Courts have ruled the police may take custody of a car and search it after it has been transported to the station (where the risk of flight has seemingly been eliminated).
- While a warrant is not required, a police officer still needs probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be discovered inside the vehicle. Until recently in Massachusetts, possession of any amount of marijuana was a crime. Therefore, anytime police officers smelled marijuana smoke during a traffic stop, they were permitted to search the car for evidence of the crime (possession of marijuana). The marijuana laws in Massachusetts changed a few years ago and it is no longer a crime to possess less than an ounce of marijuana (although it is still a civil violation). Therefore, the smell of marijuana smoke does not, by itself, give the cops the right to search a car.
Under the automobile exception, the police may search a car only if there is probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be discovered. Therefore, the police must generally know the types of objects that are the subject of the search, and officers may only search those areas of the car that could conceivably hold the evidence or the contraband. For example, if the cops have probable cause to believe there is a gun in a car, they can search the passenger compartment, under the seats, and inside the glove compartment, since the gun could be hidden in any of those places. If the police find a prescription pill bottle inside of the car, the officers cannot open the bottle under the automobile exception because there is no possibility that a gun could be located therein.