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 1990s

Florida v. Wells 495 U.S. 1 (1990)

After being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol by the Florida Highway Patrol, Wells was taken to the station for a breathalyzer test. At the station, Wells was told his car would be impounded and consented to a request to open his trunk. At the impoundment facility, a locked suitcase was found in the trunk and two marijuana cigarette butts were found in an ashtray. The suitcase was pried open and a considerable amount of marijuana was found inside.

Charged with possession of a controlled substance, Wells moved to suppress the marijuana on the ground that it was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. His motion was denied by the trial court. He then pled nolo contendere and reserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion. The Florida District Court of Appeal for the Fifth District held, inter alia (among other things), that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court. He held that because the Florida Highway Patrol had no policy concerning the opening of closed containers during an inventory search, the search was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He further held that, relying on Colorado v. Bertine (1987), "Requiring standardized criteria or established routine as to such openings prevents individual police officers from having so much latitude that inventory searches are turned into a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence."

Justice Rehnquist added, "While an "all or nothing" policy is permissible, one that allows a police officer sufficient latitude to determine whether a particular container should be opened in light of the nature of the search and characteristics of the container itself does not violate the Fourth Amendment."

In concurring, Justice Brennan took issue with the majority opinion. Brennan held " Bertine, the Court recognized that opening a container constitutes such a great intrusion that the discretion of the police to do so must be circumscribed sharply to guard against abuse. If the Court wishes to revisit that holding, it must wait for another case. Attempting to cast doubt on the vitality of the holding in Bertine in this otherwise easy case is not justified."

Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990)

Montgomery, Alabama Police Corporal B. H. Davis received a telephone call from an anonymous tipster. The tipster told him a woman would be leaving a specific apartment in an apartment complex at a specific time in a brown Plymouth station wagon with a broken right tail light. He also told Corporal Davis that the woman would be going to a certain motel and would have in her possession about an ounce of cocaine in a brown attache case.

Davis and his partner, Corporal P. A. Reynolds, went to the apartment complex and found the brown Plymouth parked in front of the apartment unit specified by the tipster. The officers watched as Vanessa White left the apartment and got into the car. She was carrying nothing in her hands. Davis and Reynolds followed White as she drove away. White took what the officers described as the most direct route to the motel mentioned by the tipster. When they neared the motel, acting upon the officer's request, a patrol car stopped White. Corporal Davis informed White that she was stopped because she was suspected of carrying cocaine in the car. White consented to a search of the vehicle for, as requested by Davis, cocaine. When the officers found a brown attache case inside, she provided the combination to its lock. Officers found marijuana inside the case and arrested White. During processing at the police station, officers found three milligrams of cocaine in White's possession. She was charged with possessing cocaine and marijuana.

The trial court denied White's motion to suppress the evidence. She plead guilty but reserved her right to appeal. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial court's decision, holding that the officers did not have the reasonable suspicion required under Terry v. Ohio (1968) to stop White's car and that the siezure of the marijuana and cocaine was a violation of her Fourth Amendment protections. A split Supreme Court of Alabama refused to hear the case.

Justice Byron White delivered the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. The question was whether an anonymous tip may provide reasonable suspicion for a stop. In overturning the ruling of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, Justice White held that "The anonymous tip, as corroborated by independent police work, exhibited sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion to make the investigatory stop." In explanation, Justice white relied on Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143 (1972) in which the Court held that sufficient "indicia of reliability" of an unverified informant's tip justified a stop and Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983) where the Court held that a "totality of the circumstances" approach could be used to determine whether an informant's tip establishes probable cause. He held that in this case, the anonymous tip, standing alone, did not meet the "indicia of reliability" standard because it provided no evidence that the information was reliable or the tipster honest. He ruled though, that although not all of the tipster's information was verified, the information provided in conjunction with corroborative police work did meet the "totality of the circumstances" requirement of Illinois v. Gates.

Justice Stevens, in dissent, held "...under the Court's holding, every citizen is subject to being seized and questioned by any officer who is prepared to testify that the warrantless stop was based on an anonymous tip predicting whatever conduct the officer just observed. Fortunately, the vast majority of those in our law enforcement community would not adopt such a practice. But the Fourth Amendment was intended to protect the citizen from the overzealous and unscrupulous officer as well as from those who are conscientious and truthful. This decision makes a mockery of that protection."

Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz 496 U.S. 444 (1990)

This case concerned a State of Michigan highway sobriety checkpoint program. The program, established in 1986, had some guidelines: All checkpoints would be set up on state roads. Drivers would be briefly checked for evidence of intoxication. If found to exhibit signs of intoxication, the drivers would be told to pull off the road to a designated area where additional tests for intoxication would be administered. Drivers who showed no signs of intoxication were allowed to continue immediately.

On the date of the Supreme Court ruling, only one checkpoint had been established. The checkpoint was in Saginaw County, Michigan where 126 drivers were stopped in a period of 1 hour and 15 minutes. Two drivers were told to pull off the road for additional tests and one of them was arrested for driving under the influence. A third driver was arrested for driving under the influence after failing to stop at the checkpoint. The average wait time for all drivers passing through the checkpoint was 25 seconds.

The program was challenged in Circuit Court the day before the Saginaw operation. The Circuit Court ruled that the program violated the Fourth Amendment of the Michigan State Constitution. On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the program violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court, holding that the balance of the State's interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which the program advanced that interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighed in favor of the state program. He noted that a Fourth Amendment seizure occurs when a vehicle is stopped at the checkpoint but that this seizure is reasonable and therefore, not in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Florida v. Bostick 501 U.S. 429 (1991)

Terrance Bostick boarded a bus in Miami, Florida intending to arrive in Atlanta, Georgia. During a stop in Fort Lauderdale, officers from the Broward County Sherrif's Department, holding a gun in a recognizable zippered pouch and displaying badges, boarded the bus, approached Bostick without suspicion, questioned him and asked for consent to search his luggage. The officer's informed Bostick that he was free to deny their request to search. Bostick consented to the search. Cocaine was found in his luggage and Bostick was arrested.

Bostick moved to suppress the seizure of the cocaine as unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. His motion was denied by the trial court and affirmed by the Florida Court of Appeals who requested a clarification from (certified a question to) the Florida Supreme Court. Tha Court, holding that a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave the bus to avoid the oficer's questioning, adopted a per se rule that "working the buses" was a violation of Fourth Amendment protections, overturning the decisions of the lower state courts.

In reversing the decision of the Florida State Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor held that the Florida Supreme court was mistaken in adopting the per se rule. Relying on INS v. Delgado (1984), O'Connor held that the fact that the events took place on a bus was but one factor in determining whether the encounter was coercive in nature. She held that the question was not whether Bostick was free to leave, as argued by the Florida Supreme Court, but rather was he free to decline the officer's request and terminate the encounter.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justice Blackmun and Justice Stevens, dissented. He held, "The majority attempts to gloss over the violence that today's decision does to the Fourth Amendment with empty admonitions. "If the war on drugs is to be fought," the majority intones, "those who fight it must respect the rights of individuals, whether or not those individuals are suspected of having committed a crime." The majority's actions, however, speak louder than its words."

Whren v. United States 517 U.S. 806 (1996)

Plainclothes District of Columbia vice squad officers in an unmarked car observed a vehicle stopped at a stop sign for an unusually long time, over twenty seconds. They could see the driver of the vehicle looking down toward the lap of the passenger. The officers performed a U turn in an attempt to approach the vehicle and the driver made a sudden right turn, accelerating rapidly. The police followed, catching up to the vehicle as it stopped behind traffic at a red light. Officer Ephraim Soto approached the driver's door, identified himself as a police officer and directed the driver to put the vehicle in park. When Officer Soto reached the window, he immediately saw in Whren's lap, two large plastic bags containing what appeared to be crack cocaine. Both occupants were arrested and quantities of several types of illegal drugs were seized from the vehicle.

Whren was convicted in District Court of four counts of drug possession after his motion to suppress was denied. He had argued that the stop had not been justified by probable cause to believe or even reasonably suspect that the occupants of the vehicle were engaged in illegal drug activity and that Officer Soto's stated reason for approaching the vehicle, to give a traffic warning, were pretextual. The District Court, in denying the motion, held that "there was nothing to really demonstrate that the actions of the officers were contrary to a normal traffic stop." In affirming the convictions, the Court of Appeals held "regardless of whether a police officer subjectively believes that the occupants of an automobile may be engaging in some other illegal behavior, a traffic stop is permissible as long as a reasonable officer in the same circumstances could have stopped the car for the suspected traffic violation."

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court. In affirming the convictions, he held that "The temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective."

Minnesota v. Carter 525 U.S. 83 (1998)

Acting on the tip of an informant, an Eagan, Minnesota police officer looked in a window of an apartment through a gap in a closed blind and observed three people putting a white substance into plastic bags. After watching for several minutes, the officer notified headquarters and search warrants were prepared. When two people, Carter and Johns, left the building and drove away, they were stopped by police. Police found a loaded gun and a black pouch on the vehicle floor. A subsequent search of the vehicle revealed 47 grams of cocaine in plastic bags.

Carter and Johns argued that the officer's observation of their activities inside the apartment constituted an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the evidence obtained as a result of this unreasonable search was therefore inadmissible.

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the court, holding that because Carter and Johns were not residents of the apartment where the search took place, their expectation of privacy was not reasonable. Because of the commercial nature of their visit and the relatively short time they were there (2.5 hours), their situation more closely resembled one in which they were simply allowed on the premises, as in a business. Rehnquist also held that the expectation of privacy is different from, and less than, a similar expectation in a home. Therefore, the search was not unreasonable.


Thanks for visiting. Hope you have a great day.

© Paul Kelly