Oregon Law Review : Vol. 85 No. 4, p. 913-942 : Cars, Cops, and Crooks: A Reexamination of Belton and Carroll with an Eye Toward Restoring Fourth Amendment Privacy Protection for Automobiles
Chase, Carol A.
Pursuant to Carroll v. United States, law enforcement officers may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile, including closed containers within, whenever there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence. New York v. Belton permits the police to conduct a warrantless search of the “passenger area” of the vehicle upon the arrest of a recent occupant of the vehicle, even in the absence of probable cause to believe that the car contains any contraband or evidence. It is not an oversimplification to state that Belton and Carroll have severely compromised the protections of the Fourth Amendment with respect to automobiles. This Article will examine both the Belton and Carroll rules and will suggest a way to restore our Fourth Amendment privacy interest in our automobiles without compromising legitimate law enforcement interests. Part I will reexamine the Belton rule and consider the merits of abolishing it in favor of the more general rules governing searches incident to arrest and the Carroll automobile exception. Part II will urge a refinement to the Carroll rule that will favor the occupants’ privacy interests while still respecting the legitimate needs of law enforcement. Part III will conclude by arguing that our expectation of privacy in our automobiles can be restored through abolishing the Belton rule and modifying Carroll.