When officers have probable cause to search a particular compartment of a vehicle for evidence of a crime, and no such evidence is found, the search must stop absent facts generating probable cause to search another compartment of the vehicle. After surveilling a juvenile who was believed to be carrying a gun, a detective informed officers that he likely placed the gun under the front passenger seat of defendant’s car. The detective surveilling the car never saw defendant’s trunk open, nor did he see anyone access the trunk in any manner. No gun was found in the passenger compartment during a subsequent search. The officers continued the search, finding a gun in the trunk. Defendant appealed the denial of the motion to suppress the gun. Held: Reversed. After reviewing cases that applied the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment and found warrantless searches of trunks and other enclosed compartments in a vehicle justified, the Court of Appeal determined that the search of the trunk in this case was different. If “officers have probable cause to believe that contraband is in only one part of a car, then they are limited to that area [including any containers therein that may contain the contraband]. If, on the other hand, officers have probable cause to believe that contraband is located somewhere in a car, but they don’t know exactly where, then they can search the entire vehicle [and all containers therein that may contain the contraband].” (United States v. Seals (5th Cir. 1993) 987 F.2d 1102, 1107, fn. 8, quoting United States v. Ross (1982) 456 U.S. 798, 824, 825 [bracketed alterations in original].) Here, there was probable cause to believe a firearm would be found specifically in the passenger compartment and no probable cause to search the trunk. As such, the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment requiring reversal. [Editor’s Note: This opinion analyzes Ross and many other cases that address vehicle searches.].
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C096463.PDF