Wyoming v. Houghton 526 U.S. 295, 119 S. Ct. 1297, 143 L. Ed.2d 408 (1999)
The police pulled over Young's
car for speeding. The policeman noticed that Young had a hypodermic
needle in his pocket.
Young admitted that he used
the needle for drugs.
The policeman asked Young and
the two passengers (Houghton and someone else) to get out of the car. He
searched the car, including Houghton's purse. Inside the purse he found
more drugs. Houghton was arrested.
The Trial Court convicted
Houghton of drug possession. She appealed.
Houghton argued that the
police did not have a warrant or probable cause to search her purse,
therefore it was unreasonable and a violation of the 4th
The Wyoming Supreme Court
overturned the conviction. The prosecutor appealed.
The Wyoming Supreme Court
found that the policeman should have known that the purse did not belong
to Young and there was no probable cause to search the passengers'
The US Supreme Court reversed
and upheld the conviction.
The US Supreme Court found
that the policeman had probable cause to believe that there were drugs in
the car, based on Young's comment. That makes the search of the vehicle
The Court found that, based
on United States v. Ross (456
U.S. 798 (1982)), if probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully
stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and
its contents that may conceal the object of the search.
In Ross, Ross was alone in the car, and the package
searched belonged to him, but the Court dismissed the distinction.
The Court noted that
passengers have a reduced expectation of privacy when riding in someone
else's car. In addition, the Court noted that they'd already found that
you could search the driver's packages, so why should there be a
different expectation of privacy for the passengers?
The Court applied a
balancing test and found that the governmental interested in searching
the entire car outweighed the minimal invasion of privacy in having your
purse rummaged through.
Otherwise, a driver with
contraband could stuff it in his passenger's purse and escape being
searched. It would be difficult for a policeman to determine exactly
who owned a particular package in a car full of people.
In a dissent it was argued
that the policeman only had evidence implicating the driver. Since the
purse clearly did not belong to the driver, there was no individualized
suspicion and therefore no probable
cause to search the purse.
Of course once one person in
the car admitted to possessing drugs, there might be probable cause for believing others in the car also have
The police probably could
not search a taxi or a bus if they had individualized suspicion on a single passenger.
Except for a search
incident to lawful arrest (SILA) of