Search and Seizure: Automobile Exception

The U.S. Supreme Court has carved out an exception to the warrant requirement for motor vehicles for two reasons: 1) individuals have a lower expectation of privacy than homes; and 2) motor vehicles are easily movable and risk the destruction or removal of evidence.[1]

This means that if an officer has probable cause to believe a crime has occurred and that there is evidence of that crime in the vehicle, then he may search that vehicle for evidence of the crime.[2] The South Carolina Court of Appeals has held that a warrantless automobile search does not have to occur immediately.[3]

However, an officer may not unreasonably extend a traffic stop while searching for probable cause or reasonable suspicion.[4]

Case Law

S.C. Supreme Court

“The automobile exception to requiring a search warrant exists in recognition of ‘the ready mobility of automobiles and the potential that evidence may be lost before a warrant is obtained’ and ‘the lessened expectation of privacy in motor vehicles which are subject to government regulation.’” State v. Morris, 411 S.C. 571, 580 (2015).


“We find the record supports the conclusion that Vinesett had probable cause to search the entire vehicle. The scope of a ‘warrantless search ... is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.’ Although Morris argues that because Vinesett failed to find drugs in the passenger compartment of the vehicle, he lacked probable cause to search the trunk, this contention mistakes the object for which Vinesett had probable cause to search. Vinesett was not simply looking for burnt marijuana based on the smell he detected at the inception of the stop. In our view, it is clear the object of his search was raw marijuana. Vinesett observed other indicators of drug possession or trafficking that led him to the reasonable belief that contraband would be found within the vehicle. The unrolled and hollowed Phillies Blunt cigars in the console suggest the future intent of marijuana use, not recent use. Additionally, Morris and Nichols told inconsistent stories, drove a rental car, and had several empty cans of Red Bull. Although those factors appear banal independently, cumulatively they indicated drug trafficking to Vinesett, based on his training and expertise. Accordingly, under our any evidence standard of review, we find the record supports the conclusion Vinesett reasonably believed the contraband he suspected could be found in the trunk of the vehicle. We therefore hold the court of appeals did not err in affirming the trial court's finding Vinesett had probable cause to search the entire vehicle.” State v. Morris, 411 S.C. 571, 581 (2015) (citations omitted).

S.C. Court of Appeals

Under the automobile exception, officers were not required to search the Hyundai Sonata immediately. See Weaver, 374 S.C. at 320, 649 S.E.2d at 482 (“[T]here is no requirement that the warrantless search of a vehicle occur contemporaneously with its lawful seizure.”). Rather, officers were permitted to transport the vehicle and search it later. See id. at 321, 649 S.E.2d at 482 (“The justification to conduct such a warrantless search does not vanish once the car has been immobilized.”). Therefore, once probable cause to seize the vehicle was established, officers had the authority to search the vehicle at the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office without obtaining a warrant. See White, 423 U.S. at 68, 96 S.Ct. 304 (“[P]olice officers with probable cause to search an automobile at the scene where it was stopped [may] constitutionally do so later at the station house without first obtaining a warrant.”). Thus, any defects in the search warrant for the Hyundai Sonata would not render the search unconstitutional. State v. Bonilla, No. 2016-001725, 2019 WL 7341486, at *9 (S.C. Ct. App. Dec. 31, 2019), reh'g denied (Feb. 20, 2020)


“Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a seizure of persons within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, an automobile stop is ‘subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be unreasonable under the circumstances.’ Where probable cause exists to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, the decision to stop the automobile is reasonable per se. The police may also stop and briefly detain a vehicle if they have a reasonable suspicion that the occupants are involved in criminal activity.” State v. Pichardo, 367 S.C. 84, 97–98 (Ct. App. 2005) (citations and internal quotations omitted).


Once a motor vehicle is detained lawfully for a traffic violation, the police may order the driver to exit the vehicle without violating Fourth Amendment proscriptions on unreasonable searches and seizures. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977); State v. Williams, 351 S.C. 591, 571 S.E.2d 703 (Ct.App.2002). In carrying out the stop, an officer may request a driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation. State v. Pichardo, 367 S.C. 84, 98, 623 S.E.2d 840, 847 (Ct. App. 2005)


Once the underlying basis for the initial traffic stop has concluded, it does not automatically follow that any further detention for questioning is unconstitutional. Fourth Amendment jurisprudence clarified:

Lengthening the detention for further questioning beyond that related to the initial stop is permissible in two circumstances. First, the officer may detain the driver for questioning unrelated to the initial stop if he has an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion illegal activity has occurred or is occurring. Second, further questioning unrelated to the initial stop is permissible if the initial detention has become a consensual encounter.

United States v. Hunnicutt, 135 F.3d 1345, 1349 (10th Cir.1998) (citations omitted). Thus, a law enforcement officer's continued questioning of a vehicle's driver and passenger outside the scope of a valid traffic stop passes muster under the Fourth Amendment either when the officer has a reasonable articulable suspicion of other illegal activity or when the valid traffic stop has become a consensual encounter. State v. Pichardo, 367 S.C. 84, 99, 623 S.E.2d 840, 848 (Ct. App. 2005)

[1] Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). [2] State v. Morris, 411 S.C. 571, 581 (2015). [3] State v. Bonilla, No. 2016-001725, 2019 WL 7341486, at *9 (S.C. Ct. App. Dec. 31, 2019) [4] State v. Pichardo, 367 S.C. 84, 97–98 (Ct. App. 2005).