Florida v. Wells

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Florida v. Wells by William Rehnquist
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

495 U.S. 1

Florida  v.  Wells

No. 88-1835  Argued: Dec. 4, 1989. --- Decided: April 18, 1990


Following his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, respondent Wells gave the Florida Highway Patrol permission to open the trunk of his impounded car. An inventory search of the car turned up two marijuana cigarette butts in an ashtray and a locked suitcase in the trunk. The suitcase was opened, and a considerable amount of marijuana was discovered. After the state trial court denied Wells' motion to suppress the marijuana on the ground that it was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, he pleaded nolo contendere to a charge of possession of a controlled substance, but retained his right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. The intermediate appellate court held, inter alia, that the trial court erred in denying suppression of the marijuana found in the suitcase. The State Supreme Court affirmed, noting the absence of any Highway Patrol policy on the opening of closed containers found during inventory searches, and holding that Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 107 S.Ct. 738, 93 L.Ed.2d 739, requires police to mandate either that all containers be opened during such searches, or that no containers be opened, leaving no room for discretion on the part of individual officers.

Held: Absent any Highway Patrol policy with respect to the opening of closed containers encountered during an inventory search, the instant search was insufficiently regulated to satisfy the Fourth Amendment. Requiring standardized criteria or established routine as to such openings prevents individual police officers from having so much latitude that inventory searches are turned into a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence. However, denying, as did the State Supreme Court, police officers all discretion is at odds with Bertine. While an "all or nothing" policy is permissible, one that allows a police officer sufficient latitude to determine whether a particular container should be opened in light of the nature of the search and characteristics of the container itself does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 3-5.

539 So.2d 464, (Fla.1989), affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 5. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 10, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 12, , filed opinions concurring in the judgment.

Michael J. Neimand, Miami, Fla., for petitioner.

Huntley Johnson, Gainesville, Fla., for respondent.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).