Must a Vehicle Be Located in a PVA to Be Searched Without a Warrant?

In State v. Parker, __ N.C. App. __, __ S.E.2d __, 2022 WL 4850255 (Oct. 4, 2022), the Court of Appeals considered the warrantless search of a vehicle that took place at a gas station. The court upheld the legality of the search based on probable cause that the vehicle contained evidence of drug activity. In the course of its opinion, the court stated that “the automobile exception [to the warrant requirement] . . . requires that the vehicle be in a public vehicular area.” Is that right?

It’s an important question. An example illustrates why. Suppose that officers are investigating reports of illegal liquor manufacturing on a rural parcel of land. They enter the parcel without a warrant under the open fields doctrine. They find a van and peek in the window, seeing what they believe to be liquor jugs. If the automobile exception requires that the vehicle be in a public vehicular area, it doesn’t apply and the officers can’t search the van. If the automobile exception isn’t so limited, the officers can go ahead and search.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll explain where I think the statement in Parker came from, why I don’t think it is quite accurate, and what effect it may have.

Primer on the automobile exception. As a general rule, the police need a search warrant to search private property. There are many exceptions to the rule. One exception is that a motor vehicle may be searched without a warrant when the police have probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in the vehicle. The exception dates back to Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), a Prohibition-era case in which federal agents conducted a warrantless search of a vehicle driven by liquor traffickers. The Supreme Court ruled that “if the search and seizure without a warrant are made upon probable cause . . . that an automobile or other vehicle contains that which by law is subject to seizure and destruction, the search and seizure are valid,” noting that contraband “concealed in a movable vessel . . . readily could be put out of reach of a search warrant.”

The mobility of vehicles was at the heart of Carroll. Modern cases have cited as an additional basis for the automobile exception “the decreased expectation of privacy which citizens have in motor vehicles.” State v. Isleib, 319 N.C. 634 (1987).

Roots of the statement in Parker. These rationales don’t have much to do with whether a vehicle is located in a public vehicular area. So where did the statement in Parker come from? It seems to have been based on a statement in Isleib about the automobile exception applying “on a public roadway or in a public vehicular area.” Other cases have also described the exception as applying on “public property” or on “public highways.” But most of those cases involved searches conducted on public streets, including Isleib, where the stop at issue took place on North Carolina Highway 12. So nothing turned on the quoted language, which seems to have been used to provide a general description of the doctrine rather than to delineate its reach precisely.

Although Parker did not cite Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. __  (2018), Collins may also help explain the Parker court’s statement. In Collins, the Court ruled that the automobile exception did not justify the warrantless search of a vehicle located within the curtilage of the suspect’s home. Although Collins didn’t limit the automobile exception to public vehicular areas, it did indicate that the exception doesn’t apply in some private locations.

Why the statement in Parker is likely not quite right. The statement in Parker isn’t supported by what the Supreme Court of the United States has said about the automobile exception. The high Court has never used the term “public vehicular area” when describing the limits of the automobile exception, or for any other reason. To the contrary, in Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U. S. 938 (1996), the Supreme Court applied the automobile exception in a case where the vehicle was parked in a private driveway, the main example of vehicle infrastructure that is not a PVA. (If you’re wondering why the search wasn’t barred under the curtilage rule later applied in Collins, Collins distinguished it on the basis that the vehicle wasn’t in the suspect’s curtilage: “[T]here was no indication that the individual who owned the truck in Labron had any Fourth Amendment interest in the [house] or its driveway, nor was there a determination that the driveway was curtilage.”)

The statement in Parker also isn’t completely supported by Isleib, where the court said that “[a] search of a motor vehicle which is on a public roadway or in a public vehicular area is not in violation of the [F]ourth [A]mendment if it is based on probable cause, even though a warrant has not been obtained.” Isleib said that the automobile exception applies on public roadways and in PVAs – it didn’t say that the exception applies only in those locations or does not apply outside those areas.

This may be a good time to return to the example about illegal liquor manufacturing. The example is lightly modified from the facts in United States v. Smith, 456 Fed. Appx. 200 (4th Cir. 2011) (unpublished). The court in that case ruled that the automobile exception applied to a search of a vehicle parked in open fields, which apparently were neither a roadway nor a PVA.

Why the reach of Parker is limited. For the reasons given above, I think the statement in Parker tying the automobile exception to PVAs is likely not quite right, albeit derived to some extent from prior cases. Whether it is analytically correct or not, though, it is part of an opinion from an appellate court and so law enforcement officers may wish to abide by it. I think the reach of Parker will be somewhat limited because the statutory definition of PVA is so expansive.

A PVA is an area “used by the public for vehicular traffic at any time,” including roads and parking lots at state facilities, gas stations, stores, and “any other business, residential, or municipal establishment providing parking space whether the business or establishment is open or closed.” G.S. 20-4.01(32). This broad language has been interpreted to cover just about anywhere a person might likely drive or park a vehicle. Shea Denning wrote here that the parking lots of private clubs are typically PVAs and collected cases holding that various other locations have also been deemed PVAs. So it will be the relatively rare case in which an officer encounters a vehicle that is not in a PVA, at least one that isn’t part of a suspect’s curtilage and so off-limits under Collins.

The scenarios where this is most likely to matter are ones involving open fields (like Smith), ones involving cars parked in someone else’s driveway (like Labron), or ones involving cars located on undeveloped property. As to that last possibility, consider State v. Ricks, 237 N.C. App. 359 (2014), where the court held that a dirt path across a vacant lot, used mainly by pedestrians and bicyclists, was not a PVA – to the relief of the drunken moped rider stopped on the dirt path by police. Parker may indicate that an officer with probable cause to search a vehicle located on such a path could not do so without a warrant. These situations obviously come up from time to time, so Parker is important and will have real world consequences if not reviewed further or clarified in a later case. But these are still relatively uncommon circumstances, so the impact of Parker will likely be limited to a relatively narrow set of circumstances.