Motor Home Search Upheld : Policemen Do Not Need Warrants, Justices Rule

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 Monday that police may lawfully search a motor home without a warrant, just as they are able to search an automobile they believe is involved in drug trafficking or other illegal activity.

The justices, in overturning a 1983 ruling by the California Supreme Court, refused to extend the constitutional guarantees that protect traditional dwellings to the motor homes, vans, campers and other habitable vehicles on the nation’s highways.

Instead, the court applied to motor homes the long-standing “automobile exception” to the general prohibition against warrantless searches. The justices ruled in 1925 that officers with probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed could search cars without warrants because the “inherent mobility” of the vehicle made it impractical to obtain a warrant before it left the scene.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, writing the court’s opinion, said that, although many vehicles now are being used as “homes,” their ready mobility and the reduced “expectation of privacy” of their operators justifies extending the “automobile exception” to any motor home that is ready for use on the highway.


“The overriding societal interests in effective law enforcement justify an immediate search before the vehicle and its occupants become unavailable,” Burger declared. " . . . To fail to apply the exception to vehicles such as motor homes ignores the fact that a motor home lends itself easily to use as an instrument of illicit drug traffic and other illegal activity.”

Question Left Open

The court left open the question of whether its ruling would apply to motor homes clearly being used as a residence--such as those elevated on blocks or connected to utilities.

Three court members issued a sharp dissent, accusing the majority of being too quick to agree to review lower court rulings on searches that go against the prosecution--thereby contributing to the justices’ own caseload. Burger is leading a campaign for a new national judicial panel that would take on some high court cases.


“Much of this court’s ‘burdensome’ workload is a product of its own aggressiveness in this area,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in an opinion joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. " . . . It has encouraged state legal officers to (appeal) in even the most frivolous search and seizure cases.”

Transporting Aliens

More than 2.1 million motor homes are registered in the United States. Law enforcement officials have expressed increasing concern over their use in transporting narcotics and illegal aliens. California authorities, in urging the court to review the case, called motor homes “mobile criminal operational centers.”

The case (California vs. Carney, 83-859) began in 1979, when officers in San Diego entered a motor home parked in a public lot because they suspected its occupants of exchanging marijuana for sex with young boys. Inside, they found large quantities of marijuana, plastic bags and a scale. They charged an occupant, Charles Carney, with possession of marijuana for sale.

Carney pleaded no contest and was placed on three years’ probation. But, in 1983, the state Supreme Court invalidated the search as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The state court likened a motor home to a traditional dwelling, protected from warrantless entry.

The justices, in reversing the decision, noted that, although the vehicle possessed “some, if not many,” of the attributes of a home, it was also “readily mobile,” like an automobile. Had it not been searched promptly, “it could readily have been moved beyond the reach of police,” Burger wrote.

Motor Home Not ‘a Castle’

Stevens, in his dissent, said that the majority had overlooked the fact that motor homes now are being used for a great range of private activity. “Although it may not be a castle, a motor home is usually the functional equivalent of a hotel room, a vacation and retirement home or a hunting and fishing cabin,” he said.


In other action, the justices agreed to consider next term two potentially significant questions involving the Miranda rule--the controversial doctrine, established by the court in 1966, requiring police officers to warn criminal suspects of their rights to silence and legal counsel before interrogation.

In one case, the court will decide whether prosecutors may use a suspect’s refusal to talk to refute his defense of insanity (Wainwright vs. Greenfield, 84-1480).

David Wayne Greenfield pleaded innocent by reason of insanity when he went on trial for sexual battery in Sarasota County, Fla., in 1975. The prosecution attacked Greenfield’s contention that he suffered from schizophrenic paranoia at the time of the crime, pointing out that, when the suspect was arrested, he told officers: “I understand my rights; I do not want to speak to you--I want to speak to an attorney.” A federal appeals court in Atlanta later reversed Greenfield’s conviction.

In the other case (Moran vs. Burbine, 84-1485), the justices will decide whether a suspect being questioned after receiving a Miranda warning must be told that an attorney is trying to contact him.

A federal court of appeals in Boston invalidated a confession made by Brian Burbine, convicted of the bludgeon murder of a Providence, R. I., woman in 1977. A public defender, contacted by Burbine’s sister, called police headquarters the night Burbine was arrested but was told erroneously that the suspect would not be questioned until the next day. Meanwhile, Burbine admitted the crime to detectives, without being informed of the attorney’s call.

In another case, the court ruled 8 to 0 that the Immigration and Naturalization Service may reopen deportation proceedings against illegal aliens who have managed to stay in the country by filing what the court called “baseless” appeals to “drag out” the process. Under the law, the government may suspend deportation of aliens who have been in the country seven years and can show hardship. But the court said that the INS was justified in seeking to deport a Mexican couple living in Nebraska since 1974, even though they had two daughters born in the United States (INS vs. Rios-Pineda, 83-2032).