Fourth Amendment Case Decisions of the United States Supreme Court

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Cases of the 1970s

Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143 (1972)

At approximately 2:15 a.m. in Bridgeport Connecticut, an informant known to Police Sgt. John Connolly approached him and told him of a man seated in a nearby car who was in possession of narcotics. The informant also told Sgt. Connolly that the man had a handgun in the waistband of his pants. Connolly approached the vehicle, knocked on the passenger side window where Robert Williams was seated and asked him to open the door. Instead of opening the door, Williams rolled down the window. Sgt. Connolly reached into the car, seized the handgun from Williams waistband and placed him under arrest. A subsequent search of Williams and his vehicle revealed a large quantity of heroin, a machete, and another handgun.

Williams argued that the initial seizure of the handgun was unreasonable under Terry v. Ohio because the informant's tip was not corroborated and the informant hadn't been shown to be reliable. Therefore, Williams argued, the subsequent search of his person and his vehicle and the seizure of the weapons and narcotics was not justified.

Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court. In reversing the decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Rehnquist held that "The Court recognized in Terry that the policeman making a reasonable investigatory stop should not be denied the opportunity to protect himself from attack by a hostile suspect." Rehnquist explained that the informant was known to Sgt. Connolly and had provided him with information in the past. Further, the informant, under Connecticut law, could have been arrested had the information provided not been proven to be correct. In this case, Rehnquist held, the tip was stronger than an anonymous tip and while the tip would not have been sufficient for a search warrant or narcotics arrest, it was enough to justify a "stop and frisk" search under Terry.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall noted that the only previous information provided by the informant to Sgt. Connolly did not lead to an arrest and that the tip did not provide any substantiating information, yet Sgt. Connolly thought the informant was reliable. Marshall wrote "This decision betrays the careful balance that Terry sought to strike between a citizen's right to privacy and his government's responsibility for effective law enforcement, and expands the concept of warrantless searches far beyond anything heretofore recognized as legitimate."

Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973)

Officer James Rand made a traffic stop of a car with one burned out head light and a non-working license plate light. The car had six occupants. Only one, Joe Alcala who was not the driver, produced a drivers license and told Rand the car belonged to his brother. When asked by Rand if he could search the car, Alcala consented. The consent was described as congenial. In the back seat of the car, Officer Rand found three crumpled checks which had been stolen from a car wash. The driver, Robert Bustamonte was arrested and convicted of possessing a stolen check. Bustamonte challenged his arrest, arguing that while he had consented voluntarily, he had not been informed of his right not to consent to the search.

In an opinion written by Justice Stewart, the Supreme Court ruled that consent to search is valid as long as it is voluntarily given. Stewart held that police may not use threats or coercion to obtain consent, but that they need not inform suspects of their right not to consent to a search.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a dissenting opinion, wrote "In the final analysis, the Court now sanctions a game of blindman's buff, in which the police always have the upper hand, for the sake of nothing more than the convenience of the police."

United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973)

Mr. Robinson was seen driving an automobile by an Washington D.C. police officer who, only a few days earlier, had discovered that Robinson did not possess a valid driver's license. The officer stopped and arrested Robinson for driving without a license. The subsequent search revealed some heroin concealed in a crumpled cigarette pack inside Robinson's coat. The heroin was introduced as evidence at trial and Robinson was convicted of possession. In appealing his conviction, he argued that the search was a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Justice William Rehnquist, in his ruling, distinguished between searches done to discover concealed weapons such as in a stop and frisk situation - see Terry v. Ohio (1968) - and those conducted after an arrest. Justice Rehnquist held that because the officer did not conduct the search in an abusive or extreme manner, and because his actions were consistent with vested police authority when making an arrest, his actions were not in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The difference in this case and the Terry case is that now the police had authority to search not only outer clothing but inside the clothing as well when the search took place after an arrest.

Gustafson v. Florida, 414 U.S. 260 (1973)

James Gustafson was pulled over at approximately 2 a.m. on a January night in 1969 after being observed weaving across the center lane "three or four" times by an Eau Gallie, Florida police officer. When asked to produce his driver's license, Gustafson told the officer he had left it in his college dorm room and Gustafson was placed under arrest by the officer for failing to have his vehicle operator's license in his possession.

Having taken Gustafson into custody, the officer proceeded to search his person. "I checked the belt, the shirt pockets and all around the belt, completely around inside." The officer, upon reaching into the left front coat pocket of Gustafson, discovered a long chain and a Benson and Hedges cigarette box. The officer opened the cigarette box and discovered marijuana cigarettes inside.

Gustafson was convicted in a Florida trial court for the unlawful possession of marijuana. The ruling was reversed by The District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District, which held that the search leading to the discovery of the marijuana was unreasonable under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Subsequently, the Supreme Court of Florida reversed that decision and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In affirming the decision of the Florida Supreme Court, Justice Rehnquist held that the search was reasonable. Gustafson's arrest for an offense he termed "benign or trivial in nature" and the lack of police regulations that required the officer to take him into custody did not alter the exception to the warrant requirement that occurs upon a lawful arrest. Rehnquist wrote "It is sufficient that the officer had probable cause to arrest the petitioner and that he lawfully effectuated the arrest and placed the petitioner in custody." Rehnquist continued, in response to Gustafson's contention that the officer did not suspect that he was armed or had any subjective fear of him, "Since it is the fact of custodial arrest which gives rise to the authority to search, it is of no moment that Smith did not indicate any subjective fear of the petitioner or that he did not himself suspect that the petitioner was armed."

United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338 (1974)

Under a warrant issued in connection to a gambling investigation, federal agents searched the business of John Calandra. The warrant was specific in its scope. It allowed agents to search and seize bookmaking items and gambling paraphernalia. One agent, aware of a pending loansharking investigation, discovered and seized a record related to loansharking.

When a grand jury convened on a later date investigating loansharking, Calandra was subpoenaed in an effort to gain his testimony related to the investigation. Calandra invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination and refused to testify. The government then requested transactional immunity for Calandra. Calandra moved to suppress the loansharking evidence and the District Court granted the suppression because the affidavit supporting the warrant was insufficient and the search exceeded the scope of the warrant. They further held that Calandra could not be forced to answer the questions of the grand jury based on the suppressed evidence. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

Justice Lewis Powell delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court holding that the exclusionary rule, established in Weeks v. United States (1914), is "designed as a deterrent effect on future unlawful police conduct, rather than a personal constitutional right of the party aggrieved." Powell limited the scope of the exclusionary rule in holding that it did not limit the government's ability to use illegally seized evidence in "all proceedings or against all persons". Holding that the duties of a grand jury would be substantially impeded by allowing a witness to invoke the exclusionary rule while offering only a minimal deterrent effect on police misconduct, the decisions of the District and Appeals Courts were overturned.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William Brennan wrote "This downgrading of the exclusionary rule to a determination whether its application in a particular type of proceeding furthers deterrence of future police misconduct reflects a startling misconception, unless it is a purposeful rejection, of the historical objective and purpose of the rule."

United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976)

The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 requires banks to maintain copies of checks and other customer records. Agents from the Treasury Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau issued subpoenas to the presidents of two banks. Mitch Miller was a customer of both banks. The subpoenas were issued in blank by the clerk of the District Court, and completed by the United States Attorney's office. They required the two presidents to appear on January 24, 1973, and to produce complete records of Miller's accounts.

The subpoenas were issued after two of Mitch Miller's alleged co-conspirators were stopped by police in response to an informant's tip and found to possess distillery equipment and raw materials and after a warehouse rented to Miller caught fire and fire fighters and sherriffs officers discovered a distillery, untaxed whiskey, and related paraphernalia.

Miller made a motion to suppress the bank records, arguing that the Bank Secrecy Act in conjunction with, what he argued, were defective subpoenas, constituted an illegal search and seizure. He argued that the bank records were made available to the banks for a limited purpose and that he had a reasonable expectation to the privacy of those records. The District Court allowed the evidence and Miller was convicted. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court, holding that Miller's bank records fell into a Constitutionally protected zone of privacy.

Justice Powell, in delivering the opinion of the Court, overturned the Appeals Court ruling, holding that the subpoenaed materials were business records of the banks, not respondent's private papers. He wrote that because checks and deposit slips are not confidential information but are freely exposed to banks and their employees, there is no legitimate "expectation of privacy" in their contents. He further held that access to bank records do not require scrutiny equal to that necessary to obtain a search warrant.

Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 (1978)

The police, after receiving a robbery report, stopped the suspected getaway car. Four people were in the car. None of the occupants claimed ownership or possession of the automobile. Rifle shells were found in the glove compartment and a sawed-off rifle was found under the front passenger's seat.

Before the trial, the defendant's sought to suppress the evidence as a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied this request on grounds that the defendant's didn't have standing to challenge because they claimed not to be the owner of the car nor in possession of it - they were merely passengers.

Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court, holding that Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights and because of their claim of non-ownership or possession of the automobile, they held no legitimate claim of privacy in the car and were not entitled to challenge a search of the glove compartment or the area under the front passenger seat.

This case was a close 5-4 decision. Justice Byron White, in his dissenting opinion held that the the majority opinion awarded Fourth Amendment protections to property rather than people: "Though professing to acknowledge that the primary purpose of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches is the protection of privacy - not property - the Court nonetheless effectively ties the application of the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule in this situation to property law concepts."

Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979)

Michael Lee Smith was arrested and charged with robbing Patricia McDonough in March of 1976 in Baltimore, Maryland. McDonough, immediately after the robbery, had given police a description of a 1975 Monte Carlo driven by the robber. Later, she began receiving threatening and obscene phone calls from a man claiming to be the robber. During one of these calls, the caller asked her to step onto her porch and when she did she observed the Monte Carlo that was present at the robbery driving slowly past her house. A few days later, police spotted a man matching the description given by McDonough driving in a white Monte Carlo. Through a license plate check, they identified the owner of the car as Michael Lee Smith.

Baltimore police, on the next day and without a warrant, requested that the local telephone company install a pen register to record the numbers dialed from Smith's home and the phone company complied. The following day, the pen register indicated that Smith dialed McDonough's phone number. Based on that and other evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search Smith's home. During the search, they found a telephone book with the page containing McDonough's number turned down to her listing. The phone book was seized, Smith was arrested, and McDonough subsequently identified him in a six person lineup.

Smith, by pretrial motion, sought to suppress "all fruits derived from the pen register" on the ground that police had not obtained a warrant prior to the installation of the pen register but his motion was denied by the trial court which held that the use of the pen register was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. After Smith subsequently waived a jury trial, the pen register tape and the phone book were admitted into evidence and Smith was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling, holding that the use of the pen register did not constitute a search because the expectation of privacy of telephone numbers dialed into a telephone system was not a reasonable expectation.

Justice Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, affirming the ruling of the Court of Appeals and agreeing with their holding that the use of the pen register was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and no warrant was required. In ruling that Smith's claimed expectation of privacy was neither legitimate nor reasonable, Blackmun wrote "When petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the phone company and "exposed" that information to its equipment in the normal course of business, he assumed the risk that the company would reveal the information to the police."

In dissent, Justice Stewart argued that Smith's expectation of privacy was legitimate. He wrote "I think that the numbers dialed from a private telephone - like the conversations that occur during a call - are within the constitutional protection recognized in Katz. It seems clear to me that information obtained by pen register surveillance of a private telephone is information in which the telephone subscriber has a legitimate expectation of privacy. The information captured by such surveillance emanates from private conduct within a person's home or office - locations that without question are entitled to Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protection."


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