The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 yesterday that occupants of an automobile who neither owned nor leased it didn't have "a legitimate expectation of privacy" to protect them from a warrantless search of the car.

In doing so, the court abandoned its 1960 guideline that "anyone legitimately on premises where a search occurs may challenge its legality." That's "too broad a gauge for measurement of Fourth Amendment rights," Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority.

For the dissenters, Justice Byron R. White accused the majority of declaring an "open season" on automobiles, of holding that the Constitution "protects property, not people," and of making a decision with "no support" in the logic of the amendment "or in common sense."

The court acted in an Illinois robbery case in which police stopped a getaway car occupied by the two suspects, the former wife of one of them, who was driving, and a third passenger. The legality of the stop wasn't disputed.

Under the front passenger seat, the officers found the sawed-off rifle used in the holdup; in the locked glove compartment, they found a box of rifle shells.

The suspects contended that the rifle and shells -- evidence used to convict them -- had been obtained in an illegal search and seizure and therefore should have been suppressed under the so-called exclusionary rule. A state appeals court upheld the convictions and yesterday was affirmed.

The ruling elicited an exchange of sharp if not acrimonious charges and countercharges about the ruling's implications, the majority's motivations, the majority's and the minority's perceptions of everyday realities, and the court's intentions in related decisions handed down over the years.

In the dissenting opinion, White accused the majority of inviting "police to engage in patently unreasonable searches every time an automobile contains more than one occupant."

Joining White were Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.

Replying in a separate opinion, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote that police will continue to have "a significant incentive... to comply" with the Fourth Amendment.

A policeman seeing a car with passengers "will not know the circumstances surrounding each occupant's presence," said Powell, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. The officer "certainly will not know whether an occupant will be able to establish that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy."

White said that the majority was "professing" that the primary purpose of the constitutional prohibition of unreasonable searches was to protect privacy.

Despite this profession, he said, "the court nonetheless effectively ties the application of the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule in this situation to property law concepts.... However unlawful stopping and searching a car may be, no 'mere' passenger may object, regardless of his relationship to the owner," unless he has some kind of "possessory" or ownership interest.

Powell answered, "On the contrary, I read the court's opinion as focusing on whether there was a legitimate expectation of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment."

In his dissent, White portrayed a majority "troubled by the practical impact of the exclusionary rule," but unwilling to face the issue of its continued validity "squarely." To achieve "what are perceived as the correct results in specific cases," it distorts other doctrines in a "rush to limit the applicability of the... rule somewhere, anywhere," he said.

The court "ignores precedent, logic, and common sense to exclude the rule's operation from situations in which, paradoxically, it is justified and needed," White charged.

Rehnquist, however, said that the court generally has allowed invocation of the rule by victims of an illegal search and seizure. But in the Illinois case, the suspects, Frank L. Rakas and Lonnie L. King, were not such victims, he said, having been passengers who couldn't claim that a search of a car in which they'd been guests was unreasonable.

He contrasted them with the person in the 1960 search case who was held to be "legitimately on premises": in the apartment of a firend who had given him a key for a night.

Finding the quoted phrase too sweeping, Rehnquist said the 1960 ruling meant merely that "a person can have a legally sufficient interest in a place other than his own home so that the Fourth Amendment protects him from unreasonable governmental intrusion into that place."

White asked, "How is the court able to avoid answering the question why presence in a private place with the owner's permission is insufficient? ... if protected zones of privacy can only be purchased or obtained by possession of property, then much of our daily lives will be unshielded from unreasonable governmental prying..."

Terming the decision "unworkable" in "real life," White wondered about the rights in a car of the spouse or a child of the owner, close friends vs. distant relatives, and nonowners driving with permission.

The majority and the dissenters agreed that the court repeatedly has distinguished between the reasonableness of the expectation of privacy in an auto and a dwelling.

But White said that the court always had recognized "some cognizable level of privacy in a car." Even if it's "somewhat weaker than in a home," he said, the court always had protected it from official arbitrariness by holding that probable cause is the minimum requirement for a lawful search of a car's interior.

"It is of no significance that a car is different for Fourth Amendment purposes from a house," White said. If there's "some protection for the privacy of an automobile, then the only relevant analogy is between a person legitimately in someone else's vehicle and a person legitimately in someone else's home."

Rehnquist, accusing the dissenters of seeking an illusory "facile consistency," said they were ducking tough questions such as what are "premises" (a one-room apartment? a 10-room house? a house with an attached garage?) and what "some" expectations of privacy means.