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 1980s

United States v. Havens 446 U.S. 620 (1980)

Two attorneys, Havens and McLeroth, arrived at the Miami, Florida airport on a flight from Peru. Havens successfully cleared customs. McLeroth was searched and agents found cocaine sewn into false pockets on the inside of a tee shirt he was wearing. Mcleroth implicated Havens. Havens was detained and his luggage was searched without a warrant. Agents found tee shirts with pieces missing in his luggage. No drugs were found and a tee shirt was seized. Both men were indicted on three counts. McLeroth pled guilty to one count and testified for the prosecution.

Havens took the stand in his own defense and acknowledged that McLeroth had been in possession of cocaine but that he had no knowledge of it. When cross examined by the prosecution and asked whether he had a tee shirt with missing pieces in his luggage and whether the seized tee shirt belonge to him, he replied "Not to my knowledge".

The seized tee shirt was admitted into evidence over the objection of the defense and the jury was instructed that the evidence was to be considered only for impeaching Haven's credibility. Haven's conviction was reversed by the Court of Appeals, which held that illegally seized evidence may be used for impeachment only if the evidence contradicts a particular statement made by a defendant in the course of his direct examination.

The opinion of the Supreme Court was written by Justice White. In overturning the Court of Appeals, he held that even though the seized tee shirt had been illegally obtained by a warrantless search, Haven's testimony under direct examination could be reasonably understood as a denial of McLeroth's testimony and that cross examination grew directly out of Haven's testimony. Therefore, the impeachment of Haven's testimony by the government did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.

Justice Brennan wrote in dissent, "Not only is today's decision an unwarranted departure from prior controlling cases, but, regrettably, it is yet another element in the trend to depreciate the constitutional protections guaranteed the criminally accused".

United States v. Payner 447 U.S. 727 (1980)

Payner was charged with falsifying a federal tax return by claiming he did not have a foreign bank acount. The primary evidence against Payner was the result of an illegal search. A private investigator had broken into an apartment of another person, stolen a briefcase, had a key made to unlock the briefcase, and taken the briefcase to an IRS photographer who photographed over 400 documents in the briefcase. The briefcase and it's contents were then returned to the apartment unbeknownst to the owner. The contents of the briefcase tied Payner to the crime he was charged with.

Justice Powell delivered the opinion of the Court. He held that although the original search of the briefcase was illegal, because it was not a search of Payner or his belongings, the evidence against Payner could not be suppressed. Powell wrote that Paynor lacked standing under the Fourth Amendment because a defendant's rights are violated only when his expectation of privacy is violated, not that of a third party. He further held that the supervisory power of the Federal Courts did not extend to evidence seized illegally from a third party.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall noted that the this decision turned the standing rule "into a sword to be used by the Government to permit it deliberately to invade one person's Fourth Amendment rights in order to obtain evidence against another person."

Los Angeles v. Lyons 461 U.S. 95 (1983)

Adolph Lyons was stopped by the Los Angeles police department at 2:00 a.m. in October of 1976. Lyons offered no resistance when approached by 4 officers and did not pose a threat. The officers, without provocation, applied a chokehold on Lyons. He lost consciousness and suffered damage to his larynx.

Lyons filed suit in Federal Distict Court seeking damages for his injuries and an injunction barring the city of Los Angeles from permitting it's officers to perform chokeholds unless those officers were reasonably threatened with the use of deadly force. Lyons alleged that Los Angeles police officers routinely applied chokeholds in non-threatening situations, had injured numerous people, and that he reasonably feared that he would be subjected to this treatment again at some point in the future.

The District Court issued a preliminary injunction against the use of chokeholds in situations where an officer was not threatened with death or serious bodily injury. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

Justice Byron White delivered the opinion of the Court, holding that the federal court system is without jurisdiction to rule on Lyon's request for injunctive relief. He further held that under Article III's "case or controversy" requirement, a plaintiff must show that a fear of immediate danger as a result of official conduct must be real, not "conjectural" or "hypothetical". The fact that Lyons was illegally choked in 1976 did not establish that it would happen again but it did provide him standing to seek damages against the oficers and, perhaps, the city of Los Angeles. The decision of the Court of Appeals affirming the injunction was reversed.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a dissenting opinion, held that Lyons had standing to challenge the city's chokehold policy and to obtain court ordered relief. No prior Supreme Court decision suggested that Lyons request for injunctive relief raised any additional issues of standing. He wrote that "Standing has always depended on whether a plaintiff has a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy, not on the precise nature of the relief sought".

Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983)

On May 3, 1978, an anonymous letter was received by the Bloomingdale, Illinios police department. The letter claimed that Sue and Lance Gates were drug dealers who made frequent trips to Florida to purchase drugs. The letter stated that Sue Gates would drive their car to Florida and that Lance Gates would fly down a few days later to drive the car, loaded with illegal drugs, back to Illinois. The anonymous tipster further claimed that the value of the drugs would often exceed $100,000.00 and that there was, at the time of the letter, over $100,000.00 worth of drugs in their home.

Acting on the tip, the Bloomindale police department learned that the State of Illinois had issued a drivers license to a Lance Gates of Bloomingdale and that there was a pending flight reservation reserved in the name of L. Gates for a flight to West Palm Beach, Florida on May 5th.

Agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration watched Gates board the flight to West Palm Beach where, upon landing, he took a taxi to a Holiday Inn. Gates went to a room registered to a Susan Gates. The next morning, Lance Gates and an unidentified woman left the hotel in a car with Illinois license plates, driving northbound on an interstate toward Chicago. The DEA informed the Bloomingdale police that the car was registered to Gates and that the driving time from West Palm Beach to Chicago was 22 to 24 hours.

The Bloomindale police presented the evidence obtained by their investigation and that of the DEA and a copy of the anonymous letter to a Magistrate who issued a search warrant authorizing a search of their vehicle and of their home.

At 5:15 a.m. the next morning, police were waiting at the Gates home when Lance and Sue Gates arrived. A search of the car revealed 350 pounds of marijuana and a search of their home uncovered additional marijuana, some weapons, and other contraband.

The Illinois Circuit Court ordered the evidence suppressed on the basis that the evidence presented to the Magistrate in obtaining the warrant failed to meet the standards of probable cause. Their ruling was affirmed by the Appellate Court of Illinois and by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court, in this ruling, abandoned the two-pronged test developed in Aguilar v. Texas and Spinelli v. United States and replaced it with a new standard, the "totality of the circumstances". Rehnquist held, "The elements under the "two-pronged test" concerning the informant's "veracity," "reliability," and "basis of knowledge" should be understood simply as closely intertwined issues that may usefully illuminate the common-sense, practical question whether there is "probable cause" to believe that contraband or evidence is located in a particular place." Rehnquist explained that the task of a Magistrate is to simply make a common-sense decision based on the evidence presented to him that evidence of a crime or contraband will be found at a given place. He further explainded the duty of the courts was to determine if the Magistrate had "a substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed". Rehnquist further explained that this "totality of the circumstances" approach would better serve both public and private interests in Fourth Amendment matters.

In dissent, Justice Brennan held, "By replacing Aguilar and Spinelli with a test that provides no assurance that magistrates, rather than the police, or informants, will make determinations of probable cause; imposes no structure on magistrates' probable-cause inquires; and invites the possibility that intrusions may be justified on less than reliable information from an honest or credible person, today's decision threatens to "obliterate one of the most fundamental distinctions between our form of government, where officers are under the law, and the police-state where they are the law."

United States v. Place 462 U.S. 696 (1983)

Place was waiting in the ticket line at the Miami Airport waiting to buy a ticket to fly to New York's La Guardia Airport. Law enforcement officers approached him and asked for his identification and for permission to search is luggage. Place consented to the search but due to the nearing departure time of the flight, agents decided not to search. They did, however, take note of the addresses on his luggage tags. The tags had different addresses which the officers confirmed were non-existant. The officers did not detain Place but notified DEA officers in New York of their suspicions.

The New York DEA agents allowed Place to retrieve his luggage before approaching him. Place declined their request to search his bags. The agents told Place they were going to seize his luggage and take it to a Federal Judge to obtain a search warrant and that he was free to accompany him if he chose to. They took the bags to Kennedy Airport where a trained narcotics detection dog performed a sniff test and detected drugs inside the luggage. 90 minutes had expired between the seizure of the bags and the sniff test. This was late on a Friday afternoon. The DEA held the bags until Monday at which time they obtained a search warrant. More than a kilogram of cocaine was found inside. Place was indicted, arrested, charged, and convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He argued that the evidence should be suppressed because the warrantless dog sniff search of his luggage was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court. She held that because there was not probable cause but only suspicion of illegal activity in this case, the principles of Terry v. Ohio (1968) applied. Because it took 90 minutes from the time of the seizure of Place's luggage to the time of the dog sniff and because Federal agents had ample time to arrange for a dog to be at La Guardia, the seizure of the luggage was unreasonable and in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Winston v. Lee, 470 U.S. 753 (1985)

At approximately 1 a.m. on the morning of July 18, 1982 shopkeeper Ralph Watkinson was closing his shop when he noticed an armed man approaching from across the street. Watkinson was also armed and drew his gun at which time the approaching man told him to freeze. Rather than complying, Watkinson opened fire, shooting the intruder in the left side and, during an exchange of gunfire, he suffered bullet wounds to his legs. The assailant fled the scene. Watkinson was taken by ambulance to the Medical College of Virginia Hospital and his assailant, Lee, was found 8 blocks away wounded in the left side of his chest. Lee told police he was wounded as he was being robbed by two individuals. He was also taken to the Medical College of Virginia Hospital where, as he entered, was seen by Watkinson who said "that's the man that shot me."

The police concluded, after an investigation, that Lee's story of being robbed was not true and subsequently charged him with attempted robbery, malicious wounding, and two counts of using a firearm in the commission of a felony. The Commonwealth of Virginia moved in state court for an operation to be performed on Lee to remove a bullet thought to be lodged under his left collarbone. There were several evidentiary hearings on the motion. At the first hearing, the Commonwealth's expert testified that some temporary or permanent nerve damage could occur and that Lee had a 1 in 1000 chance of death as a result of the surgery. At the second hearing, the same expert after a reexamination of Lee, testified that he now believed the bullet to be just under the skin. The surgery to remove the bullet would require an incision of approximately one half inch in length, could be performed under local anesthesia, and would pose "no danger on the basis that there's no general anesthesia employed."

The trial judge granted the motion to compel the surgery and the Virginia State Supreme Court denied Lee's petition for a writ of prohibition and/or a writ of habeas corpus. Lee then brought an action in Federal Court to stop the operation on Fourth Amendment grounds. The court refused, holding that Lee's cause had little chance of success based on it's merits

Just before the surgery was to begin, the surgeon ordered x-rays of Lee's chest which revealed that the bullet was lodged deeper than previously thought and that a general anesthetic would be needed. Lee returned to state court with the new evidence but was denied a motion for a rehearing and the state Supreme Court affirmed the ruling. Lee then returned to federal court where, after an evidentiary hearing, the surgery was halted. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision.

Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. In affirming the Appeals Court decision, Brennan held that compelling the surgery would violate Lee's right to be secure in his person and the search would be not be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. He wrote, "A compelled surgical intrusion into an individual's body for evidence implicates expectations of privacy and security of such magnitude that the intrusion may be "unreasonable" even if likely to produce evidence of a crime."

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)

A Tennessee statute provided that if, after a police officer has given notice of an intent to arrest a criminal suspect, the suspect fled or forcibly resisted, "the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest." Acting under authority of this statute, a Memphis police officer shot and killed a suspected burglar as he fled, at night, through a Memphis backyard. The officer, who later described the suspect as 17 or 18 years old and of slight build and who was "reasonably sure" the suspect was not armed used deadly force to apprehend him. The suspect's father, Mr. Garner, brought suit in Federal Court seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983 claiming violation of his son's constitutional rights. The District Court ruled against Garner, holding that the officer's actions and the Tennessee statute were not in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that "The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against, as in this case, an apparently unarmed, nondangerous fleeing suspect; such force may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

Mr. Justice White, writing for the Supreme Court and affirming the Appeals Court decision, held that apprehending a suspect by the use of deadly force constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement. To determine whether such a seizure is reasonable, the right's of the suspect must be balanced against the governmental interest in effective law enforcement. White wrote, "The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable".

White further held that "the officer in this case could not reasonably have believed that the suspect - young, slight, and unarmed - posed any threat. Nor does the fact that an unarmed suspect has broken into a dwelling at night automatically mean he is dangerous."

Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 372 (1987)

Steven Lee Bertine was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in February of 1984 in Boulder, Colorado. After he was taken into custody, the van he was driving was inventoried. During the inventory a closed backpack was opened. Officers found cocaine, methaqualone, drug paraphernalia, and a large amount of cash inside the backpack. Bertine was charged with driving while under the influence of alcohol, unlawful possession of cocaine with intent to dispense, sell, and distribute, and unlawful possession of methaqualone.

The District Court in Colorado, ruling on Bertine's motion to suppress the evidence seized during the inventory as unlawful and in violation of the Fourth Amendment, granted that motion based not on the Fourth Amendment but on the Colorado Constitution. On appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the District Court but based it's decision on the U.S. Constitution, holding that searches of closed trunks and suitcases violated the Fourth Amendment per Arkansas v. Sanders (1979) and United States v. Chadwick (1977).

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion for the Supreme Court, reversing the decision of the Colorado Supreme Court. Rehnquist held that South Dakota v. Opperman (1976) and Illinois v. Lafayette (1983) were the controlling cases in this matter, not Sanders and Chadwick. Opperman and Lafayette dealt with principles governing inventory searches of automobiles and of an arrestee's personal effects rather than searches of closed trunks and suitcases. Rehnquist held that because it was not shown that the police acted in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation and that they followed standardized caretaking procedures, the inventory and subsequent seizure of the contraband was lawful.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall held that the search could not legitimately be labeled an inventory and was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Anderson v. Creighton 483 U.S. 635 (1987)

A summary judgment occurs when a court makes a determination without a full trial. This determination, or judgement, may be issued on the merits of an entire case, or some specific issues of that case.

Qualified immunity provides immunity from suit to government officials performing discretionary functions when their actions don't violate clearly established law.

In this case, a summary judgement was issued by a Federal District Court in favor of FBI agent Anderson. Anderson had been sued by Creighton, alleging that Anderson, along with other officers, violated the Fourth Amendment during a warrantless search of Creighton's home. Anderson had suspected that a bank robbery suspect might be found inside the home. The suspect was not found.

The Court of Appeals reversed the ruling of the District Court, holding that the legality of the search could not be determined without a full trial due to factual disputes leaving in doubt whether the search was supported by probable cause. They further held that summary judgement in favor of Anderson on qualified immunity grounds was not valid because the right he was accused of violating, the right of persons to be protected from warrantless searches of their homes without probable cause and exigent circumstances, was clearly established.

Writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court was Justice Scalia. He held that Anderson was entitled to a summary judgement on qualified immunity grounds because he could establish that a reasonable officer could have believed that the search was not in violation of the Fourth Amendment even though it actually was. He further held that there was no merit to Creighton's claim that immunity should not be provided to officers who conduct illegal warrantless searches of innocent third parties' homes in search of fugitives.

Murray v. United States 487 U.S. 533 (1988)

Federal drug agents observed Murray and others suspected of illegal activities drive vehicles into, and later out of, a warehouse. When the vehicles were leaving the warehouse, the agents could see a tractor-trailer with a large container. Later, other people drove the vehicles from the warehouse and were followed, stopped, and arrested for marijuana related offenses. Federal agents then forced their way into the warehouse and could see burlap-wrapped bales in plain sight. The agents did not disturb the bales and left the warehouse. Upon securing a search warrant not based upon their observations made after the forced entry (the forced entry was not mentioned in the application for the warrant), the agents entered the warehouse and seized 270 bales of marijuana. Murray was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

The District Court admitted the evidence, rejecting the arguments that the warrant was invalid because the Magistrate was not informed of the prior forced entry during the warrant application. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Justice Scalia wrote the opinion of the Court holding that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure does not require the suppression of evidence initially discoved during an illegal warrantless search if the same evidence is discovered later in a legal search with a valid warrant untainted by the initial warrantless search.

United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989)

Andrew Sokolow bought two roundtrip airline tickets from Honolulu, Hawaii to Miami, Florida at the United Airlines ticket counter at the Honolulu airport. Sokolow named Andrew Kray and Janet Norian as the passengers and paid $2,100 from a roll of twenty dollar bills for the tickets. The fight was to leave later that day and a return date was not specified. When purchasing the tickets, Sokolow gave a home phone number when asked by the ticket agent. Neither Sokolow nor his companion, Norian, checked any luggage.

After the purchase, the ticket agent informed Officer John McCarthy of the Honolulu Police Department of the transaction and told him that the purchaser appeared nervous, was in his mid twenties, was accompanied by a woman, and was wearing a black jumpsuit and gold jewelry. Officer McCarthy learned the telephone number given by Sokolow belonged to a Karl Herman of Honolulu. The ticket agent identified the voice on the answering machine at the number given as that of the person who purchased the tickets. McCarthy could find no listing for an Andrew Kray in Hawaii. He subsequently learned that a return reservation had been made for July 25, 3 days after the flight from Honolulu to Miami. The return flight was to have layovers in Denver and Los Angeles.

On July 25, during the layover in Los Angeles, DEA Agents noted that Sokolow "appeared to be very nervous and was looking all around the waiting area." Sokolow and Norian arrived in Honolulu later that day. Sokolow was again wearing a black jumpsuit and gold jewelry and neither Sokolow nor Norian had checked any luggage. When the couple attempted to hail a cab, DEA Agent Richard Kempshall approached them, displayed his credentials, and with the assistance of three other DEA Agents, escorted the couple away from the cab and into the DEA offices. In the offices, a drug dog alerted on Sokolow's brown shoulder bag. Agents obtained a warrant and a search of the bag revealed no drugs but the bag did contain documents indicating Sokolow was involved in drug trafficking. The Agents had the drug dog reexamine the luggage and this time the dog alerted on a medium size bag. It was now 9:30 p.m. and too late to obtain another warrant. The Agents allowed the couple to leave but kept their luggage. The next morning, after a second drug dog alerted on the same bag, a search warrant was obtained and 1,063 grams of cocaine were found and seized.

Sokolow was charged with possession with the intent to distribute cocaine. The United States District Court for Hawaii denied Sokolow's motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the search, finding that the DEA Agents had a reasonable suspicion that he was, in fact, involved in drug trafficking. Sokolow entered a conditional guilty plea in the District Court. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction, holding that the DEA Agents did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Sokolow in the airport. They reasoned that because there was no evidence of ongoing criminal behavior, the Agents' stop was not reasonable.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion for the Supreme Court. In reversing the ruling of the Ninth Circuit, Rehnquist relied on United States v. Cortez (1981) in holding that in the evauluation of a given stop of a suspect, the Court must consider "the totality of the circumstances - the whole picture." Sokolow's use of an alias, his cash purchase of the tickets, and his relatively short trip to Miami were the basis for Rehnquist's finding that "the agents had a reasonable basis to suspect that respondent was transporting illegal drugs on these facts."


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