OCTOBER TERM, 1998
FLORIDA v. WHITE
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA No. 98-223. Argued March 23, 1999-Decided May 17, 1999
Two months after officers observed respondent using his car to deliver cocaine, he was arrested at his workplace on unrelated charges. At that time, the arresting officers seized his car without securing a warrant because they believed that it was subject to forfeiture under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act (Act). During a subsequent inventory search, the police discovered cocaine in the car. Respondent was then charged with a state drug violation. At his trial on the drug charge, he moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the search, arguing that the car's warrantless seizure violated the Fourth Amendment, thereby making the cocaine the "fruit of the poisonous tree." Mter the jury returned a guilty verdict, the court denied the motion, and the Florida First District Court of Appeal affirmed. It also certified to the Florida Supreme Court the question whether, absent exigent circumstances, a warrantless seizure of an automobile under the Act violated the Fourth Amendment. The latter court answered the question in the affirmative, quashed the lower court opinion, and remanded.
Held: The Fourth Amendment does not require the police to obtain a warrant before seizing an automobile from a public place when they have probable cause to believe that it is forfeitable contraband. In deciding whether a challenged governmental action violates the Amendment, this Court inquires whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search and seizure when the Amendment was framed. See, e. g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132, 149. This Court has held that when federal officers have probable cause to believe that an automobile contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment does not require them to obtain a warrant prior to searching the car for and seizing the contraband. Id., at 150-151. Although the police here lacked probable cause to believe that respondent's car contained contraband, they had probable cause to believe that the vehicle itself was contraband under Florida law. A recognition of the need to seize readily movable contraband before it is spirited away undoubtedly underlies the early federal laws relied upon in Carroll. This need is equally weighty when the automobile, as opposed to its contents, is the contraband that the police seek to secure. In addition, this Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has consistently accorded officers greater latitude in exercising their duties in public places. Here, because the police seized respondent's
vehicle from a public area, the warrantless seizure is virtually indistinguishable from the seizure upheld in G. M. Leasing Corp. v. United States, 429 U. S. 338, 351. Pp. 563-566.
710 So. 2d 949, reversed and remanded.
THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and BREYER, JJ., joined. SOUTER, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BREYER, J., joined, post, p. 566. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined, post, p. 567.
Carolyn Snurkowski, Assistant Deputy Attorney General of Florida, argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs were Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General, and Daniel A. David, Assistant Attorney General.
Malcolm L. Stewart argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Assistant Attorney General Robinson, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and Kathleen A. Felton.
David P. Gauldin argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were David A. Davis and Michael J. Minerva. *
* A brief of amici curiae urging reversal was filed for the State of Arkansas et al. by Winston Bryant, Attorney General of Arkansas, David R. Raupp, Senior Assistant Attorney General, and Dan Schweitzer, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Bill Lockyer of California, M. Jane Brady of Delaware, Thurbert E. Baker of Georgia, Margery S. Bronster of Hawaii, Alan G. Lance of Idaho, James E. Ryan of Illinois, Jeffrey A. Modisett of Indiana, Thomas J. Miller of Iowa, Carla J. Stovall of Kansas, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., of Maryland, Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, Joseph P. Mazurek of Montana, Don Stenberg of Nebraska, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, Peter Verniero of New Jersey, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Betty D. Montgomery of Ohio, W A. Drew Edmondson of Oklahoma, Mike Fisher of Pennsylvania, Charles M. Condon of South Carolina, Mark Barnett of South Dakota, Paul G. Summers of Tennessee, Jan Graham of Utah, Mark L. Earley