You Can Judge a Container by Its Cover: The Single-purpose Container Exception and the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment requires that all searches be reasonable. The Supreme Court has interpreted this reasonableness requirement as balancing an individual’s right to privacy against the interests of the government. Most searches require a warrant; however, there are welldelineated exceptions to the warrant requirement. One such exception is the single-purpose container exception for warrantless searches, which is a derivative of the plain view doctrine for warrantless seizures. The single-purpose container exception allows for the warrantless search of a container that is so distinctive that its contents are a foregone conclusion and can therefore be said to be in plain view. Because these containers are thought to reveal their contents to the world, they cannot sustain a reasonable expectation of privacy. Courts have used this exception to permit the warrantless search of gun cases, lock-picking sets, and wrapped bundles of cocaine.
A circuit split has developed over how the determination of the single-purpose container should be made. The Ninth and Tenth Circuits have held that the determination of whether something constitutes a single-purpose container should be made from the objective viewpoint of a reasonable person, excluding the qualities not intrinsic to the container itself. The Fourth and Seventh Circuits have held that this determination should be made from the subjective viewpoint of the officer conducting the search, including the circumstances surrounding the search. Resolving this issue requires balancing the privacy rights of suspects against the need for law enforcement officers to do their jobs.
This Comment argues that a two-step approach should be adopted for the single-purpose container exception. First, the officer should determine whether a container qualifies as a single-purpose container. This determination should be made from a reasonable person’s viewpoint, but it should also include the surrounding circumstances. Second, the requirements of the plain view doctrine—that the officer has a legal right to see and access the container and that the criminal nature is immediately apparent—should be applied to the single-purpose container exception. This is a practical solution that properly balances the competing privacy and governmental interests at stake.