Fairness of Drawing

Questions about the fairness of drawing a line often arise in the law. For example, given reasonable cause, the police generally do not have to obtain a warrant to search a motor vehicle, for the obvious reason that the vehicle might be driven away while the police go to a judge to obtain a warrant. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the police may not search a person’s home without a search warrant. In the case of California v. Carney,1 the U.S. Supreme Court had to rule on whether the police needed a warrant to search for marijuana in an “oversized van, fully mobile,” parked in a downtown parking lot in San Diego. Because the van was a fully mobile vehicle, it seemed to fall under the first principle; but because it also served as its owner’s home, it seemed to fall under the second. The difficulty, as the Court saw, was that there is a gray area between those things that clearly are motor vehi- cles and not homes (for example, motorcycles) and those things that clearly are homes and not motor vehicles (for example, apartments). Chief Justice Warren Burger wondered about a mobile home in a trailer park hooked up to utility lines with its wheels removed. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asked whether a tent, because it is highly mobile, could also be searched without a warrant. As the discussion continued, houseboats (with or without motors or oars), covered wagons, and finally a house being moved from one place to another on a trailer truck came under examination. In the end, our highest court decided that the van in question was a vehicle and could be searched without first obtaining a warrant to do so. The court did not fully explain why it is fair to allow warrantless searches—and to send people to jail as a result—in cases of vans used as homes but not in other very similar cases.

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