Carroll v. United States

Carroll v. United States

Argued March 14, 1924
Decided March 2, 1925
Full case name George Carroll, John Kiro v. United States

267 U.S. 132 (more)

45 S. Ct. 280; 69 L.Ed. 543; 39 A. L. R. 790
The warrantless search of a car does not violate the Constitution. The mobility of the automobile makes it impracticable to get a search warrant.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Taft, joined by Holmes, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Butler, Sanford
Concurrence McKenna
Dissent McReynolds, joined by Sutherland
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. IV, National Prohibition Act

Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), was a decision by the United States Supreme Court that upheld the warrantless search of an automobile, which is known as the automobile exception. The case has also been used to increase the scope of warrantless searches.


Federal prohibition officers arranged an undercover purchase of liquor from George Carroll, an illicit dealer under investigation, but the transaction was not completed. They later saw Carroll and one Kiro driving on the highway from Detroit to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which they regularly patrolled. They pursued, pulled them over, and searched the car, finding illegal liquor behind the rear seat.

The National Prohibition Act provided that officers could make warrantless searches of vehicles, boats, or airplanes when they had reason to believe illegal liquor was being transported and that law enforced the Eighteenth Amendment.[1]

Opinion of the court

The Court noted that Congress early observed the need for a search warrant in border search situations,[2] and Congress always recognized a necessary difference between searches of buildings and vehicles for contraband goods, where it is not practical to secure a warrant, because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.[3] The warrantless search under these circumstances was thus valid.

The Court held, however, that

[i]t would be intolerable and unreasonable if a prohibition agent were authorized to stop every automobile on the chance of finding liquor, and thus subject all persons lawfully using the highways to the inconvenience and indignity of such a search... . [T]hose lawfully within the country, entitled to use the public highways, have a right to free passage without interruption or search unless there is known to a competent official, authorized to search, probable cause for believing that their vehicles are carrying contraband or illegal merchandise.[4]

The Court added that where the securing of a warrant is reasonably practicable, it must be used.[5]

This became known as the Carroll doctrine: a vehicle could be searched without a search warrant if there was probable cause to believe that evidence is present in the vehicle, coupled with exigent circumstances to believe that the vehicle could be removed from the area before a warrant could be obtained.[6]

Subsequent events

In 1927, the Florida Legislature enacted the Carroll decision into statute law in Florida, and the statute remains in effect.[7]

In United States v. Di Re,[8] the Court declined to extend Carroll to permit searches of passengers in a vehicle that had apparently been lawfully stopped. In Di Re there was no probable cause to believe that the passenger was holding any evidence.

The Court relied on Carroll in Cooper v. California[9] to observe that a search of a vehicle may be reasonable where the same search of a dwelling may not be reasonable.

Due to a 2009 decision rendered by the Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant, there may be new restrictions on warrantless searches of automobiles under certain limited circumstances. That ruling requires either that the vehicle's owner has a reasonable chance of moving the vehicle before police can get a warrant. In the case of Gant, the suspect was arrested while the vehicle was parked. Arizona v. Gant does not automatically preclude Carroll and does not overrule it.[10]

See also

Further reading


  1. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 144 (1925). The National Prohibition Act required a search warrant for a search of a building. However, this law was revoked in 1933 when Prohibition ended.
  2. 267 U.S. at 150-53
  3. 267 U.S. at 153.
  4. 267 U.S. at 153-54.
  5. 267 U.S. at 156. Observation: This comment is no longer valid. See Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940, 116 S.Ct. 2485, 135 L.Ed.2d 1031 (1996) ("If a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment thus permits police to search the vehicle without more," citing California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 393, 105 S.Ct 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406 (1985)); Maryland v. Dyson, 119 S.Ct. 2013, 144 L.Ed.2d 442 (1999).
  6. In Husty v. United States, 282 U.S. 694, 51 S.Ct. 240, 75 L.Ed. 629, 74 ALR 1407 (1931), a vehicle search was sustained under Carroll where the officers had probable cause to believe a vehicle contained liquor, but they waited until the driver showed up to arrest him and search the car. The Court thus rejected Husty's contention that the search was invalid because the police could have obtained a warrant under the circumstances. Husty, 282 U.S. at 701.
  7. Fla. Stat. s. 933.19
  8. United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, 68 S.Ct. 222, 92 L.Ed. 210 (1948).
  9. Cooper v. California, 386 U.S. 58, 87 S.Ct. 788, 17 L.Ed.2d 730 (1967).
  10. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009).

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