Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132, 45 S.Ct. 280 (1925)
FACTS: On September 29, 1921, undercover prohibition agents met with Carroll in an apartment in Grand Rapids, for the purpose of buying illegal whiskey. Carroll left in order to get the whiskey. He returned and said that his source was not in, but that he would deliver it the next day. The proposed vehicle did not return, and the evidence disclosed no explanation for failure to do so.
On October 6, while patrolling the road leading from Detroit to Grand Rapids, the agents saw Carroll in the same Oldsmobile roadster going eastward from Grand Rapids towards Detroit. They gave pursuit, but lost the car. On December 15, again while on patrol on the same road, saw Carroll in the same Oldsmobile roadster coming from Detroit to Grand Rapids. They gave chase and stopped Carroll, searched the car, and found 68 bottles of illegal whiskey behind the upholstery, the filling of which had been removed. Carroll was arrested. In addition, the road from Detroit to Grand Rapids was heavily used to introduce illegal whiskey into the country.
The agents were not expecting to encounter Carroll at that particular time, but when they met them there they believed (the Court found the agents had probable cause) they were carrying liquor, and hence the search, seizure, and rescue.
ISSUE: Was the search of the vehicle without a warrant unlawful?
DISCUSSION: In light of the facts, it is clear that the officers had probable cause for the search and seizure. The Court made extensive references to preceding cases and to statutes and stated that, "... recognizing a necessary difference between a search of a store, dwelling house, or other structure in respect of which a proper ... warrant may be obtained and a search of a ship, motor boat, wagon, or automobile for contraband goods, where it is not practicable to secure a warrant, because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.”
The reasoning of Carroll concerning the need to permit warrantless search "where it is not practicable to secure a warrant" suggested that a warrantless search of a car would be permissible with respect to any type of object for which a warrant to search could be obtained were there time to secure a warrant. Subsequent cases discussed the warrantless search in Carroll based on the mobility of the vehicle; the "opportunity to search is fleeting since a car is readily moveable."
The Court said that the "right to search and the validity of the seizure are not dependent on the right to arrest." In Carroll, the police had probable cause that the auto contained contraband but yet no lawful basis for taking custody of the occupants of the vehicle so as to prevent its leaving while a search warrant was sought.