Get the evidence your attorney needs to win! ©

801-596-2455  |  877-648-8046

Free & Confidential Consultation

The History of the Automobile Exception To the Fourth Amendment

By Jason K Jensen, Private Investigator

Jason Jensen and Jensen Investigations private investigators are experienced criminal defense investigators. Contact Jensen Investigations if you or someone you love has been accused of a crime.


This is a paper provides an in-depth discussion into the history of the Automobile Exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant required. It demonstrates that throughout the existence of the Fourth Amendment, the exception had always existed because of the risks associated with mobility of vehicles, vessels, automobiles, and other modes of transportation. The U.S. Supreme Court first acknowledge the existence of the exception in the controversial case of Carroll v. United States (1925). Since that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has expanded and refined its application, addressing the areas of a vehicle that may be searched, passengers and their effects, and containers being transported. The Courts have explained that purpose of the exception is of necessity and that the risks of the concealment or removal of the contraband from the jurisdiction outweigh the importance of obtaining a warrant beforehand. Notwithstanding, the citizen can challenge the sufficiency of a police officers’ determination of the perceived existence of probable cause post-seizure or post-arrest.

History of automobile detentions

In America, there has always been some type of warrant vehicle exception (Samaha, 2012, pg. 219), but it didn’t become identified as the Automobile Exception until the early 20th Century (Worrall, 2010, pg. 147), and since that time, the exception has been expanded wherever an automobile is involved (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220).

Prior to the formation of the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the United States still followed the common law, adopted from England (Scheb & Scheb, 1989, pg. 317). Under the common law, customs officials had obtained Writs of Assistance which were abused because they gave the officials unlimited power to search vessels for smuggled goods of the American colonists (Scheb & Scheb, 1989, pg. 317). Moreover, "general warrants" were in high use, which offended many Americans. These general warrants failed to specify person and place to be search. But that practice was abolished by Parliament in 1766 after John Entick successfully sued officials for trespass in Entick v. Carrington, 95 Eng. Rep. 807 (1765), and the next year William Penn successfully argued against the practice of "general warrants" in the House of Commons in 1766 (Scheb & Scheb, 1989, pg. 318).

Then Congress adopted the Fourth Amendment in 1789, which addressed the requirement that warrants be specific, meaning they are required to name persons and places to be search disposing "general warrants" forever. However, the practice of searching vehicles without warrants still was allowed. The same year the Fourth Amendment was adopted by Congress, that same Congress passed the Act of July 31, 1789, 1 Stat. 29, 43 (Samaha, 2012, pg. 219; Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 150 (1925)). The Act allowed customs officials to enter and ship or vessel, in which they shall have reason to suspect any goods, wares or merchandise subject to duty shall be concealed; and therein to search for, seize, and secure any such goods, wares or merchandise (Samaha, 2012, pg. 219).

Ships were one thing, homes were quite another—since a man’s home was his castle (Samaha, 2012, pg. 219; Scheb & Scheb, 1989, pg. 318). Officers had to get a warrant if suspects were hiding taxable stuff in their houses; a different standard applies to homes—a warrant had to be obtained (Worrall, 2010, pg. 147). Why is there a difference? The answer was provided by the Supreme Court, in the landmark case Carroll v. United States, supra., stating that such an exception was necessary because "Goods in course of transportation and concealed in a movable vessel readily could be put out of reach of a search warrant" (Samaha, 2012, pg. 319).

In 1815 Congress expanded the authorization to other instances. Officers could "not only to board and search vessels within their own and adjoining districts, but also [they could] stop, search, and examine any vehicle, beast, or person, on which or whom they should suspect there was merchandise which was subject to duty" (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). Congress then passed the Indian Appropriation Act of 1917 where officers were authorized without warrants to seize and forfeit automobiles used in introducing or attempting to introduce intoxicants into Indian territory" (Carroll v. United States, 1925, pg. 152-53).

Until 1925, not a single petition to the U. S. Supreme Court challenged the exception until George Carroll in Carroll v. United States (Worrall, 2010, pg. 147; Samaha, 2012, pg. 220; Scheb & Scheb, 1989, pg. 329). This is considered a landmark, or watershed case, because of its heavy impact on American life due to the advent of the automobile (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). During the early 20th Century, the automobile had become the greatest advancement of technology, and ownership of cars spread rapidly across all classes of society (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). It became instantly controversial.

In the 1920s, the Prohibition Act was in full force. George Carroll and John Kiro, were well-known bootleggers at the time. One day, federal Prohibition agents Cronenwett, Scully, and Thayer and Michigan state trooper Peterson were transporting liquor on a stretch of road well-known as a route for rum-runners from Detroit to Grand Rapids in an Oldsmobile convertible (Samaha, 2012, pg. 219; Carroll, 1925). While on regular duty patrolling the road looking for Prohibition law violations, they stopped the car occupied by Carroll and Kiro, and searched it without a warrant. In the warrantless search, they found 68 bottles of blended Scotch whiskey and Gordon gin stuffed in hollowed-out upholstery (Samaha, 2012, pg. 219).

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the search without a warrant, following the same rationale applied for all vehicle searches since passage of the Fourth Amendment, that it is "not practicable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought" (Carroll, 1925, pg. 153).

Since Carroll, the court has slowly expanded what is called the automobile exception to the warrant requirement (Worrall, 2010, pg. 147). One expansion, in Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583 (1974), was to add to the mobility of vehicles the rationale that there’s a reduced expectation of privacy in vehicles (Worrall, 2010, pg. 148). In a series of other decisions, the exception came to include all searches of vehicles without warrants, as long as they are based on probable cause to believe they contain contraband or evidence. The exception clarified areas of the car which may be included in the search to the passenger compartment, the glove compartment, and even the trunk (Samaha, 2012, pg. 219; Worrall, 2010, pg. 151). Then the court turned its attention to related searches, including the search of containers inside vehicles and to occupants and their belongings. In 1982, in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a conviction where officers had probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime was being concealed in a vehicle, stating that so long as police have probable cause they can search closed containers found during the course of a search (Scheb & Scheb, 1989, pg. 329).

Consistent with the Ross decision, the Supreme Court issued a decision California v. Acevedo, (1991), concerning the search of a bag in a vehicle where contraband was found. Acevedo left his apartment where officers had suspicion that marijuana was (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). Acevedo was observed by officers who conducting a surveillance of the apartment (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). On the date of his arrest, Acevedo was observed carrying a brown paper bag the size of marijuana packages the officers had seen earlier (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). Acevedo placed the paper bag into the trunk of his car (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). As he drove away, the police stopped him in his car, they opened his trunk, opened the bag Acevedo carried, and found marijuana in it (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). The court held it was reasonable to search the container without a warrant because they had probable cause to believe the bag contained marijuana (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220). The risk of the vehicle leaving trumped his right of privacy (Samaha, 2012, pg. 220).


  1. Congressional Quarterly. (1990). The supreme court at work. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc. ISBN 8-87287-540-3.
  2. Samaha,J. (2012). Criminal procedure (8th ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  3. Scheb,J.M. & Scheb,II,J.M. (1989). Criminal law and procedure. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co.
  4. Stephens,Jr.O.H., & Scheb,II,J.M. (1988). American constitutional law: essays and cases. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.
  5. Worrall,J.L. (2010). Criminal procedure: from first contact to appeal (3rd ed.).Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  Call Now

Contact Us

SSL secure private form
I agree not to send solicitations.

*By law, all information provided is strictly confidential. Jensen Investigations assures you that your information is secure.

Private Investigators Association of Utah (PIAU)

Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction (ACSR)

Utah Cold Case Coalition (UCCC)

Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association (WTLA)

International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts (IABPA)

International Homicide Investigators Association (IHIA)

American Investigative Society of Cold Cases (AISOCC)

Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (UACDL)

Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE)

Jensen Investigations, LLC BBB Business Review

A+ Rating

© 2023. Jason Jensen and Jensen Private Investigations, LLC. All Rights Reserved.


Contact Jensen Investigations

Consultations are Free and Confidential

Toll Free


En Español



Salt Lake City

Park City






Rock Springs



Jason’s Cell





Contact Us

*By law, all information provided is strictly confidential. Jensen Investigations assures you that your information is secure.