We hold that police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.

Wyoming v. Houghton

525 U.S. 295 (1999)

U.S. Supreme Court

April 5, 1999

In the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1995, Trooper Robert Delane Baldwin of the Wyoming Highway Patrol stopped a 1977 Cadillac for speeding and a burned-out brake light.

The car was driven by Mr. David Young. The car had two passengers, both women, who were sitting in the front seat.  Trooper Baldwin observed a hypodermic syringe in Mr. Young’s shirt pocket. Trooper Baldwin ordered Mr. Young to step outside the car and to place the syringe on the hood. When Trooper Baldwin asked Mr. Young why he was carrying the syringe, Mr. Young replied that he used the syringe to take illegal drugs. Trooper Baldwin, assisted by two other troopers, directed the passengers to leave the car and to provide identification. Ms. Sandra Houghton, who lied and gave her name as Sandra James, stated that she did not have any identification with her.  This would not be the last lie Ms. Houghton would tell on this traffic stop.  Trooper Baldwin then began to search the passenger compartment of the car for narcotics, based on Mr. Young’s possession of the syringe and his admission that he had used it to inject drugs. Trooper Baldwin found what he described as a cloth lady’s purse near the middle of the back seat, somewhat on the driver’s side. He opened the purse and removed a wallet, which contained Ms. Houghton’s driver’s license. Ms. Houghton then identified the purse as hers. Trooper Baldwin then noticed fresh needle track marks on Ms. Houghton’s arms. She stated that she had given a false name “in case things went bad.” [Note: They were already bad and about to get worse.] Trooper Baldwin continued to search the purse, in which he found a brown bag. He opened the brown bag to find a syringe that contained an estimated 60 cubic centimeters of liquid, which field-tested positive for methamphetamine. The brown bag also held additional syringes, razor blades, and other drug paraphernalia. Ms. Houghton denied ownership of this brown bag, which contained felony amounts of narcotics.  She also claimed ignorance as to how this brown bag was inserted into her purse.  In yet another odd series of circumstances, a drug addict inexplicitly has someone secrete drugs into a personal bag.

Trooper Baldwin arrested Ms. Houghton for possession of a controlled substance. He completed his search of the purse, discovering a smaller black bag, which also contained syringes, razor blades, and other drug paraphernalia. Ms. Houghton did claim ownership of the contents of the black bag which contained only misdemeanor drug amounts.  Strangely odd that Ms. Houghton claimed ownership of the misdemeanor amount of drugs and denied ownership of the felony amount.  Mr. Young and the second passenger were released at the scene.

The trial court denied the Motion to Suppress the narcotics and paraphernalia.  The Wyoming Supreme Court reversed and suppressed the narcotics.  The State of Wyoming appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which held “Neither Ross nor the historical evidence it relied upon admits of a distinction based on ownership … Passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectations of privacy with regard to the property they transport in cars … We hold that police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.” Wyoming v. Hougton, 525 U.S. 295 (1999).

Information for this article was obtained from; Wyoming v. Hougton, 525 U.S. 295 (1999) and Oral Arguments Wyoming v. Hougton, 525 U.S. 295 (1999).

Lessons Learned:

  1. In Houghton, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the Carroll Doctrine – the authority for law enforcement to search a vehicle without a warrant, if law enforcement had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband; see Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). In Carroll Federal Prohibition Agents stopped the ‘Carroll boys’, brothers who were reputed bootleggers during Prohibition.  This was the first case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court involving a search of a motor vehicle.  Many called motor vehicles ‘machines’ back then because much of the country still used horse and buggies.

Here in Houghton, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the search of a motor vehicle to include passenger containers.  This is not only an expansion of Carroll but also of U.S. v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982), see What is in Bandit’s Paper Bag? In Ross, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the Carroll doctrine to include containers.  Specifically, the court held “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.” Id.at 825  However, in Ross, there was only the driver of the car who occupied the vehicle.  In Houghton, there were two additional passengers, which makes this case so impactful on law enforcement conducting probable cause searches of vehicles.

The primary argument made by Ms. Houghton’s attorney was that Trooper Baldwin should have asked the occupants who belonged to what container, in this case a purse.  If Ms. Houghton claimed the purse was her own then the Trooper would not have the lawful authority to search it as the probable cause was initially established by Mr. Young’s possession of the syringe.  The U.S. Supreme Court refuted this argument because the justices recognize that people, especially those involved in criminal activity, lie.  This conclusion was supported by the series of lies told by Ms. Houghton.

  1. The probable cause to search the vehicle in Houghton occurred when the driver, Mr. Young, stated he possessed the syringe and needle to ingest illegal drugs. Once that probable cause was established Trooper Baldwin possessed enough probable cause to search the entire vehicle for additional drugs.
  1. What if Mr. Young had also possessed drugs and handed it over to Trooper Baldwin? Would Trooper Baldwin still be able to search the entire vehicle for additional drugs?    In State v. Donaldson, 2019 – Ohio – 232, the Sixth District Court held “[W]e find that appellant’s production of a small amount of marijuana provided further reason to believe that the vehicle contained contraband subject to seizure.”  This is a Sixth District, not a Sixth Circuit case, which is an appellate court located in Northwest Ohio.  However, if a suspect hands law enforcement some drugs that likely strengthens any probable cause or creates probable cause at that moment.  With established probable cause law enforcement can search the car for contraband, specifically unlawful drugs.

Does your agency train on the doctrine of Vehicle Searches?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.