United States v. Ross (1982) 456 US 798

Traffic Stop; Search of a Vehicle; Search of Contents

A reliable informant contacted police department, describing respondent’s vehicle, the location of the vehicle and respondent and stating that he had just seen respondent complete a drug sale. At the scene, a license and computer check revealed that the matching car was registered to a person fitting respondent’s description. Five minutes later, police officers observed the vehicle being driven by respondent and stopped the vehicle. The police officers discovered a bullet in the front seat and a pistol in the glove compartment. Upon respondent’s arrest, police officers opened the trunk and found a closed paper bag containing a white powder. At issue was whether the warrantless search of the vehicle stopped by police officers who had probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained contraband was unreasonable under U.S. Const. amend. IV. The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile was defined by the object of the search and the places in which there was probable cause to believe it would be found. Probable cause justifying the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle justified the search its contents that could have concealed the object of the search.

The court reversed and remanded, holding that if probable cause justified the search of the lawfully stopped vehicle, it justified the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may have concealed the object of the search.