FLORIDA v. WHITE (98-223)
710 So. 2d 949, reversed and remanded.
Syllabus Opinion
[ Thomas ]
[ Souter ]
[ Stevens ]

Opinion of the Court

NOTICE:  This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.


No. 98-223



[May 17, 1999]
No. 98-223. Argued March 23, 1999-Decided May 17, 1999

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act provides that certain forms of contraband, including motor vehicles used in violation of the Act's provisions, may be seized and potentially forfeited. In this case, we must decide whether the Fourth Amendment requires 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. We hold that it does not.


On three occasions in July and August 1993, police officers observed respondent Tyvessel Tyvorus White using his car to deliver cocaine, and thereby developed probable cause to believe that his car was subject to for-feiture under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act (Act), Fla. Stat. §932.701 et seq. (1997).1 Several months later, the police arrested respondent at his place of employment on charges unrelated to the drug transactions observed in July and August 1993. At the same time, the arresting officers, without securing a warrant, seized respondent's automobile in accordance with the provisions of the Act. See §932.703(2)(a).2 They seized the vehicle solely because they believed that it was forfeitable under the Act. During a subsequent inventory search, the police found two pieces of crack cocaine in the ashtray. Based on the discovery of the cocaine, respondent was charged with possession of a controlled substance in violation of Florida law.

At his trial on the possession charge, respondent filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the inventory search. He argued that the warrantless seizure of his car violated the Fourth Amendment, thereby making the cocaine the "fruit of the poisonous tree." The trial court initially reserved ruling on respondent's motion, but later denied it after the jury returned a guilty verdict. On appeal, the Florida First District Court of Appeal affirmed. 680 So. 2d 550 (1996). Adopting the position of a majority of state and federal courts to have considered the question, the court rejected respondent's argument that the Fourth Amendment required the police to secure a warrant prior to seizing his vehicle. Id., at 554. Because the Florida Supreme Court and this Court had not directly addressed the issue, the court certified to the Florida Supreme Court the question whether, absent exigent circumstances, the warrantless seizure of an automobile under the Act violated the Fourth Amendment. Id., at 555.

In a divided opinion, the Florida Supreme Court answered the certified question in the affirmative, quashed the First District Court of Appeal's opinion, and remanded. 710 So. 2d 949, 955 (1998). The majority of the court concluded that, absent exigent circumstances, the Fourth Amendment requires the police to obtain a warrant prior to seizing property that has been used in violation of the Act. Ibid. According to the court, the fact that the police develop probable cause to believe that such a violation occurred does not, standing alone, justify a warrantless seizure. The court expressly rejected the holding of the Eleventh Circuit, see United States v. Valdes, 876 F.2d 1554 (1989), and the majority of other Federal Circuits to have addressed the same issue in the context of the federal civil forfeiture law, 21 U.S. C. §881, which is similar to Florida's. See United States v. Decker, 19 F.3d 287 (CA6 1994) (per curiam); United States v. Pace, 898 F.2d 1218, 1241 (CA7 1990); United States v. One 1978 Mercedes Benz, 711 F.2d 1297 (CA5 1983); United States v. Kemp, 690 F.2d 397 (CA4 1982); United States v. Bush, 647 F.2d 357 (CA3 1981). But see United States v. Dixon, 1 F.3d 1080 (CA10 1993); United States v. Lasanta, 978 F.2d 1300 (CA2 1992); United States v. Linn, 880 F.2d 209 (CA9 1989). We granted certiorari, 525 U.S. ___ (1998), and now reverse.


The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," and further provides that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." U.S. Const., Amdt. 4. In deciding whether a challenged governmental action violates the Amendment, we have taken care to inquire whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search and seizure when the Amendment was framed. See Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. ___, ___ (1999); Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 149 (1925) ("The Fourth Amendment is to be construed in light of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when it was adopted, and in a manner which will conserve public interests as well as the interests and rights of individual citizens").

In Carroll, we 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. Our holding was rooted in federal law enforcement practice at the time of the adoption of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, we looked to laws of the First, Second, and Fourth Congresses that authorized federal officers to conduct warrantless searches of ships and to seize concealed goods subject to duties. Id., at 150-151 (citing Act of July 31, 1789, §§24, 29, 1 Stat. 43; Act of Aug. 4, 1790, §50, 1 Stat. 170; Act of Feb. 18, 1793, §27, 1 Stat. 315; Act of Mar. 2, 1799, §§68-70, 1 Stat. 677, 678). These enactments led us to conclude that "contemporaneously with the adoption of the Fourth Amendment," Congress distinguished "the necessity for a search warrant between goods subject to forfeiture, when concealed in a dwelling house or similar place, and like goods in course of transportation and concealed in a movable vessel where they readily could be put out of reach of a search warrant." 267 U.S., at 151.

    The Florida Supreme Court recognized that under Carroll, the police could search respondent's car, without obtaining a warrant, if they had probable cause to believe that it contained contraband. The court, however, rejected the argument that the warrantless seizure of respondent's vehicle itself also was appropriate under Carroll and its progeny. It reasoned that "[t]here is a vast difference between permitting the immediate search of a movable automobile based on actual knowledge that it then contains contraband [and] the discretionary seizure of a citizen's automobile based upon a belief that it may have been used at some time in the past to assist in illegal activity." 710 So. 2d, at 953. We disagree.

The principles underlying the rule in Carroll and the founding-era statutes upon which they are based fully support the conclusion that the warrantless seizure of respondent's car did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Although, as the Florida Supreme Court observed, the police lacked probable cause to believe that respondent's car contained contraband, see 710 So. 2d, at 953, they certainly had probable cause to believe that the vehicle itself was contraband under Florida law.3 Recognition of the need to seize readily movable contraband before it is spirited away undoubtedly underlies the early federal laws relied upon in Carroll. See 267 U.S., at 150-152; see also California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390 (1985); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 367 (1976). This need is equally weighty when the automobile, as opposed to its contents, is the contraband that the police seek to secure.4 Furthermore, the early federal statutes that we looked to in Carroll, like the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, authorized the warrantless seizure of both goods subject to duties and the ships upon which those goods were concealed. See, e.g., 1 Stat. 43, 46; 1 Stat. 170, 174; 1 Stat. 677, 678, 692.

In addition to the special considerations recognized in the context of movable items, our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has consistently accorded law enforcement officials greater latitude in exercising their duties in public places. For example, although a warrant presumptively is required for a felony arrest in a suspect's home, the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless arrests in public places where an officer has probable cause to believe that a felony has occurred. See United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 416-424 (1976). In explaining this rule, we have drawn upon the established "distinction between a warrantless seizure in an open area and such a seizure on private premises." Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 587 (1980); see also id., at 586-587 ("It is also well settled that objects such as weapons or contraband found in a public place may be seized by the police without a warrant"). The principle that underlies Watson extends to the seizure at issue in this case. Indeed, the facts of this case are nearly indistinguishable from those in G. M. Leasing Corp. v. United States, 429 U.S. 338 (1977). There, we considered whether federal agents violated the Fourth Amendment by failing to secure a warrant prior to seizing automobiles in partial satisfaction of income tax assessments. Id., at 351. We concluded that they did not, reasoning that "[t]he seizures of the automobiles in this case took place on public streets, parking lots, or other open places, and did not involve any invasion of privacy." Ibid. Here, because the police seized respondent's vehicle from a public area-respondent's employer's parking lot-the warrantless seizure also did not involve any invasion of respondent's privacy. Based on the relevant history and our prior precedent, we therefore conclude that the Fourth Amendment did not require a warrant to seize respondent's automobile in these circumstances.

The judgment of the Florida Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


1.  That Act provides, in relevant part: "Any contraband article, vessel, motor vehicle, aircraft, other personal property, or real property used in violation of any provision of the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, or in, upon, or by means of which any violation of the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act has taken or is taking place, may be seized and shall be forfeited." Fla. Stat. §932.703(1)(a) (1997).

2.  Nothing in the Act requires the police to obtain a warrant prior to seizing a vehicle. See State v. Pomerance, 434 So. 2d 329, 330 (Fla. Ct. App. 1983). Rather, the Act simply provides that "[p]ersonal property may be seized at the time of the violation or subsequent to the violation, if the person entitled to notice is notified at the time of the seizure ... that there is a right to an adversarial preliminary hearing after the seizure to determine whether probable cause exists to believe that such property has been or is being used in violation of the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act." §932.703(2)(a).

3.  The Act defines "contraband" to include any "vehicle of any kind, ... which was used ... as an instrumentality in the commission of, or in aiding or abetting in the commission of, any felony." §932.701(2)(a)(5).

4.  At oral argument, respondent contended that the delay between the time that the police developed probable cause to seize the vehicle and when the seizure actually occurred undercuts the argument that the warrantless seizure was necessary to prevent respondent from removing the car out of the jurisdiction. We express no opinion about whether excessive delay prior to a seizure could render probable cause stale, and the seizure therefore unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.