©2010 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute – United States v. Aguilar, No. 08-50155 (9th Cir. Unpub. Decided July 29, 2009)

In 1929, the United States Supreme Court decided Carroll v. United States, where they held that an automobile stopped on the side of the road may be searched without a warrant if the police have probable cause that it contains contraband or evidence of a crime.i   This is now commonly known as the “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement.  The Supreme Court applied this exception to motor homes in 1985 to motor homes when they decided California v. Carney.ii

In Carney, DEA agents received information that a man (Carney) living in a motor home in a parking lot was exchanging marijuana for sex.  Agents watching the motor home stopped a youth who was observed entering and leaving the motor home.  He told the agents that he received marijuana in exchange for sex.  Agents made contact with Carney at the motor home.  They entered the motor home without a warrant and observed marijuana.  A subsequent search revealed more marijuana.  The United States Supreme Court ultimately had to decide whether the automobile exception applied to a motor home that was readily mobile in a parking lot but being used as a residence.  The court held that the automobile exception did apply because the motor home was readily mobile.

Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Aguilar, a case that involved two motor homes, one of which owned by the appellant, Aguilar, that were parked in a public campground and being used as residences.iii   In Aguilar, agents received information from an informant that the two motor homes at issue contained marijuana.  The informant, while not known to be reliable, was not anonymous, had no known motive to lie and claimed to have firsthand knowledge of the marijuana.  The agents went to the campground and located the motor homes.  One of the occupants, upon sight of the agents, ran into one of the motor homes and attempted to shut the door.  This person then lied to the agents about the number of people inside the motor homes.  A trained narcotics detection canine also alerted on the motor homes at issue.  The subsequent warrantless search revealed 1,800 lbs of marijuana.

Aguilar filed a motion to suppress the marijuana discovered in the warrantless search and the district court denied the motion and Aguilar was convicted of federal narcotics violations.  Aguilar appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.
The Ninth Circuit held that probable cause was present to search the motor home.  The court noted that an “alert” by a certified, reliable narcotics detection canine is sufficient, even standing alone, to provide probable cause.iv  However, in this case, strengthening the probable cause was the information from the informant along with the evasive behavior of one of the motor home occupants.  Thus, the court held that probable cause was present.

The remaining issue was whether the automobile exception allowed the warrantless search of the motor homes that were located in the public campground and being used as residences.  The Ninth Circuit considered the Supreme Court’s previous decision in California v. Carney.  They noted that, in Carney, the Supreme Court suggested some factors to consider when deciding whether to apply the automobile exception to motor homes.  The factors are “the vehicles location, whether the vehicle is readily mobile or instead, for instance, elevated on blocks, whether the vehicle is licensed, whether it is connected to utilities, and whether it has convenient access to a public road.”v

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(2007)  Visible Underage Drinking and Warrantless Home Entry

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(2006)   Warrantless Searches of Motor Vehicles

In Aguilar, the Ninth Circuit noted that while the motor homes at issue were located in a campground and being used as residences, the vehicles were readily mobile.  In fact, they were driven to, and from, the campground on three consecutive weekends.  Additionally, the motor homes were not elevated on blocks, nor were they attached to utilities.  Lastly, the campground was adjacent to a public road.

In light of these factors, the Ninth Circuit held that the automobile exception was correctly applied to the search of Aguilar’s motor home and no search warrant was required.


i 267 U.S. 132 (1929)

ii 471 U.S. 386 (1985)

iii No. 08-50155 (9th Cir. Unpub Decided July 29, 2009)

iv United States v. Lingenfelter, 997 F.2d 632 (9th Cir. 1993)

v Carney, 471 U.S. at 394 n.3

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