51:4 Single-Purpose Containers: The Circuit Split Presents a Battle Between Values as Disparate as General and Specific Warrants


Imagine the unfortunate but common airline passenger whose luggage is “accidentally” opened by airline employees. For most, this invasion of privacy may be of little consequence. Indeed, luggage opened by an airline is generally not actionable. However, from some travelers’ point of view, these privacy invasions have led to highly unfortunate discoveries because when unusual or suspicious looking packages are discovered within luggage, they can be reported to the police.

Whether police are allowed to open separate packages within luggage depends entirely on the jurisdiction where the unlucky traveler’s luggage arrives. For example, if an accidentally opened piece of luggage contained sparse articles of clothing and a cellophane-wrapped package, a police officer could use the surrounding circumstances and his subjective knowledge as justification for search and seizure in the Fourth Circuit. However, in the First, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, an objective standard determines whether a container is a single-purpose container. This inconsistency is spurred by a history of Fourth Amendment case law that has often been described as confusing and unclear.

This Comment will describe the current state of Fourth Amendment protection over warrantless searches of sealed containers, demonstrate a current circuit split over the issue, and propose a solution to the disagreement. The proposed solution unifies the original purpose of the Fourth Amendment and balances the legitimate interests of the government against individual privacy interests by suggesting an objective perspective should control the determination of what constitutes a single-purpose container, but the circumstances of each individual case should be taken into account.

Part II of this Article examines the historical creation of the Fourth Amendment and its subsequent jurisprudential evolution relating to closed containers. Part III discusses the single-purpose container exception to the Fourth Amendment’s general warrant requirement, which is itself an exception to the plain view doctrine that allows warrantless searches when the criminal nature of an object is immediately apparent. Part IV describes the current circuit split over how and when to apply the single-purpose container exception. Lastly, Part V proposes adoption of an objective reasonable person standard that takes into account the circumstances of the police officer but is in no way subjective.