Under the so-called “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement, the police can search a car for evidence without a warrant — including any containers in the car — if they have probable cause to believe that evidence is in the car and that evidence could be located in the place they search. But does this apply to computers? That is, if the police find a laptop in a car, can they search the laptop without a warrant under the automobile exception?
I’m not aware of any court having ruled on this issue before, but last week the Tenth Circuit came close: Its opinion in United States v. Burgess spent several pages pondering this question before deciding not to decide the issue. If you’re interested, check out the discussion at pages 13-20. The opinion also has a very interesting discussion about different ways of limiting the scope of computer searches later in the opinion.