The Automobile Exception

The Automobile Exception
By: Dee Wampler

The mobility of automobiles creates circumstances of an emergency or “exigency” that, as a necessity, rigorous enforcement of the warrant requirement is impossible since the expectation of privacy with respect to one’s automobile is significantly less than that relating to one’s home or office.

Police may search on probable cause if it would warrant a person of “reasonable caution” to believe that contraband or evidence of criminal activity is in a vehicle. A trained officer draws inferences and makes deductions that might well elude an untrained person, but the evidence “must be seen and weighed not in terms of library analysis by scholars, but understood by those versed in the field of law enforcement”.

When an officer observes the traffic offense – however minor – he has probable cause to stop the driver of the vehicle. Stopping a vehicle and detaining its occupants does constitute seizure. Police officers may always rely upon notice from other police departments that a person or a vehicle is wanted in connection with an investigation.

Facts or conduct that might be “wholly innocent to the untrained observer” might “acquire significance” when viewed by a veteran law enforcement officer who is more familiar with crime such as drug smugglers and their methods used to avoid detection. A series of acts that appear innocent, when viewed separately, may warrant further investigation when viewed together. For instance, a person may be “somewhat nervous” which is customary for a person that is pulled over, but it is unusual for a person to “fidget”.

Courts look to the “totality of the circumstances” in each case to see whether the detaining officer has a “particularized and objective basis” for suspecting wrongdoing.

A person may be detained for investigative stops and detention and there isn’t any “bright line” as to how long the officer can detain a suspect. But, if the officer detains for an unreasonable period of time, it becomes “intrusive” and loses the “investigative stop protection”.

There isn’t any “rigid time limitation” on a “Terry stop,” but the stop may be too long if it involves “delay unnecessary in the legitimate investigation of the law enforcement officers”.


U.S. v. Walraff, 705 F 2d 980 (8th Cir. 1983).
U.S. v. Weaver, 966 F 2d 391 (9th Cir. 1992).
U.S. v. Weaver, 966 F 2d 391 (8th Cir. 1992).
U.S. v. Cortez, 449 US 411.
U.S. v. Rose, 731 F 2d 1337 (8th Cir. 1984).
U.S. v. Sharpe, 470 US 675 (1985).

By | 2017-11-05T19:00:25+00:00 May 3rd, 2017|Legal News|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dee Wampler

Dee Wampler has practiced law for 50 years has received many awards and honors. As Greene County’s youngest elected Prosecuting Attorney at the age of 29, Wampler’s reputation was quickly established as a leading trial attorney. Dee was an original organizer and first president Crimestoppers.

Wampler has published over 250 articles for Law Enforcement Journals, and authored six books: Missouri Criminal Law Handbook; The Trial of Christ; The Myth of Separation Between Church and State; Standing on the Front Line; Defending Yourself Against Cops in Missouri, and other Strange Places; and One Nation Under God. His knowledge of criminal law and trial tactics is widely recognized.

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