Top 10 Cases for Police Series, Part 3

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Editor's Note: With so many cases affecting policing, the question often arises regarding which are the most important. If a law enforcement professional could choose only 10 cases to examine, which would those be? Included in this series is a list of what experts Rolando del Carmen and Jeffery Walker consider to be the top 10 cases most influencing day-to-day policing in the U.S. Continuing from our last installment, in reverse order, we give you number 8: United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982).


When making a valid search of a car, the police may search the entire car and open the trunk and any packages or luggage found therein that could reasonably contain the items for which they have probable cause to search.


Police received a telephone tip from a reliable informant that Ross was selling drugs kept in the trunk of his car. The informant provided a detailed description of Ross, his automobile, and the location of the sale. The police drove to the location, spotted the person and car that matched the description given by the informant, and made a warrantless arrest. One of the officers found a bullet on the front seat of the automobile. Without a warrant, officers conducted a more thorough search of the interior of the automobile and discovered a pistol in the glove compartment. Ross was arrested. Officers then took Ross’s keys and opened the trunk of his automobile, where they found a closed brown paper bag containing glassine bags of a substance that was later determined to be heroin. The officers then drove the car to police headquarters where another warrantless search of the trunk revealed a zippered leather pouch containing cash. Ross was charged with and convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute.


During a valid search of an automobile, may the police open the trunk of a car and containers found therein without a warrant or exigent circumstances when they have probable cause to believe the trunk and containers therein could reasonably contain contraband? YES.

Supreme Court Decision

When the police have probable cause to justify the warrantless search of a car, they may search the entire car, and open the trunk and any packages or luggage found therein that could reasonably contain the items for which they have probable cause to search.


“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.... The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile thus is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted. Rather, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.”

Case Significance

The Ross case is important because it further defines the scope of police authority in vehicle searches. The Belton case specifically refused to address the issue of whether the police could open the trunk of a car in connection with a search incident to a valid arrest. Ross addressed that issue and authorized such action. Ross further stated that any packages or luggage found in the car that could reasonably contain the items for which they have probable cause to search could also be opened without a warrant. Ross has, therefore, greatly expanded the scope of allowable warrantless searches, limited only by what is reasonable. Note, however, that this authorization has limits. The police may not open large items taken from the car (such as a footlocker) without a warrant if there is time to obtain one. This is because those items have identities of their own, separate and apart from the car. Also, although the police may constitutionally open smaller items without a warrant, that action may be prohibited by state law or departmental policy, which prevails over a constitutional license.

For many more cases, see Briefs of Leading Cases in Law Enforcement, 8th ed., which includes short, easy-to-understand briefs of 185 cases of primary importance to law enforcement officials.



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