ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF COLORADO.
In the early morning of October 15, 1979, an officer of the Colorado Springs Police Department observed a blue 1967
Pontiac GTO automobile moving along a road at a speed above the legal limit. Before the officer could pursue the vehicle, it disappeared from his sight. Shortly thereafter, the officer heard a police radio dispatch reporting that a theft of motor vehicle parts had occurred in the area he was patrolling in his car. The radio dispatch announced that a number of chrome lug nuts were among the items stolen, and provided a description of two suspects. A few minutes after hearing the report, the officer spotted the same automobile he had seen earlier, still speeding. He saw the car enter a service station, and followed it there for the purpose of issuing a traffic citation to its driver.
As the officer approached the car, both of its occupants, including the respondent, stepped out of it. A conversation between the officer and the respondent ensued, just outside the closed front door of the automobile. At this time, the officer observed chrome lug nuts in an open glove compartment located between the vehicle's front bucket seats, as well as two lug wrenches on the floorboard of the back seat. These items were in plain view, illuminated by the lights of the service station. Recognizing that the respondent and his companion met the description of those suspected of stealing motor vehicle parts, the officer immediately arrested both of them. He then seized the lug nuts and wrenches.
Before the date scheduled for his trial on charges of stealing motor vehicle parts, the respondent moved to suppress the items that the arresting officer had seized. The trial court granted the motion, and its decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Colorado.*fn1 The State subsequently filed a petition for certiorari in this Court.
The provisions of the Fourth Amendment are enforceable against the States through the Fourteenth, and it is axiomatic that "searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable
under the Fourth Amendment -- subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967). One of these exceptions, recognized at least since Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), exists when an automobile or other vehicle is stopped and the police have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime. See Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753, 760 (1979). Carroll upheld the legality of a search that was conducted immediately after a vehicle was stopped. Since Carroll, warrantless searches have been found permissible even when a car was searched after being seized and moved to a police station. Texas v. White, 423 U.S. 67 (1975); Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970). In each of these latter cases, the search was constitutionally permissible because an immediate, on-the-scene search would have been permissible. Texas v. White, supra, at 68; Chambers v. Maroney, supra, at 52.
At issue in the present case is a seizure that occurred on the scene shortly after a speeding car was stopped. Thus, if there was probable cause "that the contents of the automobile offend against the law," Carroll, supra, at 159, the warrantless seizure was permissible.*fn2
Probable cause in this case is self-evident. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Colorado acknowledged that there was probable cause, but mistakenly concluded that a warrant was required to open the car door and seize the items within.
The officer could not stop the vehicle the ...