Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999)

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certiorari to the supreme court of wyoming

No. 98-184. Argued January 12, 1999—Decided April 5, 1999

During a routine traffic stop, a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer noticed a hypodermic syringe in the driver's shirt pocket, which the driver admitted using to take drugs. The officer then searched the passenger compartment for contraband, removing and searching what respondent, a passenger in the car, claimed was her purse. He found drug paraphernalia there and arrested respondent on drug charges. The trial court denied her motion to suppress all evidence from the purse as the fruit of an unlawful search, holding that the officer had probable cause to search the car for contraband, and, by extension, any containers therein that could hold such contraband. Respondent was convicted. In reversing, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that an officer with probable cause to search a vehicle may search all containers that might conceal the object of the search; but, if the officer knows or should know that a container belongs to a passenger who is not suspected of criminal activity, then the container is outside the scope of the search unless someone had the opportunity to conceal contraband within it to avoid detection. Applying that rule here, the court concluded that the search violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Held: Police officers with probable cause to search a car, as in this case, may inspect passengers' belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search. In determining whether a particular governmental action violates the Fourth Amendment, this Court inquires first whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search or seizure under common law when the Amendment was framed, see, e. g., Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U. S. 927, 931. Where that inquiry yields no answer, the Court must evaluate the search or seizure under traditional reasonableness standards by balancing an individual's privacy interests against legitimate governmental interests, see, e. g., Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U. S. 646, 652-653. This Court has concluded that the Framers would have regarded as reasonable the warrantless search of a car that police had probable cause to believe contained contraband, Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132, as well as the warrantless search of containers within the automobile, United States v. Ross, 456 U. S. 798. Neither Ross nor the historical evidence it relied upon admits of a distinction based on ownership. The analytical principle underlying Ross's rule is also fully consistent with the balance of this


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