331 U.S. 145 (1947), 34, Harris v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 34
Citation:331 U.S. 145, 67 S.Ct. 1098, 91 L.Ed. 1399
Party Name:Harris v. United States
Case Date:May 05, 1947
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 145

331 U.S. 145 (1947)

67 S.Ct. 1098, 91 L.Ed. 1399



United States

No. 34

United States Supreme Court

May 5, 1947

Argued December 12, 13, 1946




1. Upon warrants charging violations of the Mail Fraud Statute and the National Stolen Property Act, five federal agents arrested an accused in the living room of an apartment which was in his exclusive possession. Without a search warrant, they searched the apartment (living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath) intensively for five hours, for two canceled checks and any other means by which the crimes charged might have been committed. Beneath some clothes in a bedroom bureau drawer, they discovered a sealed envelope marked "personal papers" of the accused. This was torn open and found to contain several draft cards which were property of the United States and the possession of which was a federal offense. Upon the evidence thus obtained, the accused was convicted of violations of the Selective Training & Service Act of 1940 and § 48 of the Criminal Code.

Held: The evidence was not obtained in violation of the provision of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, nor did its use violate the privilege of the accused against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 150-155.

2. A search incidental to an arrest may, under appropriate circumstances, extend beyond the person of the one arrested to the premises under his immediate control. P. 151.

3. A search incidental to an arrest, which is otherwise reasonable, is not rendered invalid by the fact that the place searched is a dwelling, rather than a place of business. P. 151.

4. The search in this case was not rendered invalid by the fact that it extended beyond the room in which the accused was arrested. P. 152.

5. The search in this case was not more intensive than was reasonably demanded by the circumstances. Pp. 152-153.

6. The objects sought and those actually seized in this case were properly subject to seizure. P. 154.

7. It is of no significance in this case that the draft cards which were seized were unrelated to the crimes for which the accused was arrested. P. 154.

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8. Since possession of the draft cards by the accused was a serious and continuing offense against federal laws, upon discovery of the cards, a crime was being committed in the very presence of the agents conducting the search. Pp. 154-155.

9. If entry upon the premises be authorized and the search which follows be valid, there is nothing in the Fourth Amendment which inhibits the seizure by law enforcement agents of government property the possession of which is a crime, even though the officers are not aware that such property is on the premises when the search is initiated. P. 155.

10. That abuses sometimes occur is no basis for giving sinister coloration to procedures which are basically reasonable. P. 155.

151 F.2d 837, affirmed.

VINSON, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE VINSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted on sixteen counts of an indictment1 charging the unlawful possession, concealment and

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alteration of certain Notice of Classification Cards and Registration Certificates in violation of § 11 of the Selective Raining and Service Act of 1940,2 and of § 48 of the Criminal Code.3 Prior to the trial, petitioner moved to suppress the evidence, which served as the basis for the conviction, on the grounds that it had been obtained by means of an unreasonable search and seizure contrary to the provisions of the Fourth Amendment,4 and that to permit the introduction [67 S.Ct. 1100] of that evidence would be to violate the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment.5

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The motion to suppress was denied, and petitioner's numerous objections to the evidence at the trial were overruled. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. 151 F.2d 837. Certiorari was granted because of the importance of the questions presented.

Two valid warrants of arrest were issued. One charged that petitioner and one Moffett had violated the Mail Fraud Statute6 by causing a letter addressed to the Guaranty Trust Company of New York to be placed in the mails for the purpose of cashing a forged check for $25,000 drawn on the Mudge Oil Company in pursuance of a scheme to defraud. The second warrant charged that petitioner and Moffett, with intent to defraud certain banks and the Mudge Oil Company, had caused a $25,000 forged check to be transported in interstate commerce, in violation of § 3 of the National Stolen Property Act.7

Five agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, acting under the authority of the two warrants, went to the apartment of petitioner in Oklahoma City and there arrested him. The apartment consisted of a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Following the arrest, which took place in the living room, petitioner was handcuffed and a search of the entire apartment was undertaken. The agents stated that the object of the search was to find two $10,000 canceled checks of the Mudge Oil Company which had been stolen from that company's office and which were thought to have been used in effecting the forgery. There was evidence connecting petitioner with that theft. In addition, the search was said to be for the purpose of locating

any means that might

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be used to commit these two crimes, such as burglary tools, pens, or anything that could be used in a confidence game of this type.8

One agent was assigned to each room of the apartment and, over petitioner's protest, a careful and thorough search proceeded for approximately five hours. As the search neared its end, one of the agents discovered in a bedroom bureau drawer a sealed envelope marked "George Harris, personal papers." The envelope was torn open, and on the inside a smaller envelope was found containing eight Notice of Classification cards and 11 Registration Certificates bearing the stamp of Local Board No. 7 of Oklahoma County. It was this evidence upon which the conviction in the District Court was based, and against which the motion to suppress was directed. It is conceded that the evidence is in no way related to the crimes for which petitioner was initially arrested, and that the search which led to its discovery was not conducted under the authority of a search warrant.9

[67 S.Ct. 1101] In denying the motion to suppress, the District Court wrote no opinion. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed

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the conviction, finding that the search was carried on in good faith by the federal agents for the purposes expressed, that it was not a general exploratory search for merely evidentiary materials, and that the search and seizure were a reasonable incident to petitioner's arrest.10

If it is true, as petitioner contends, that the draft cards were seized in violation of petitioner's rights under the Fourth Amendment, the conviction based upon evidence so obtained cannot be sustained. Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886); Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914); Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20 (1925); Segurola v. United States, 275 U.S. 106 (1927). This Court has consistently asserted that the rights of privacy and personal security protected by the Fourth Amendment

. . . are to be regarded as of the very essence of constitutional liberty; and that the guaranty of them is as important and as imperative as are the guaranties of the other fundamental rights of the individual citizen. . . .

Gouled v. United States, 255 U.S. 298, 304 (1921).

This Court has also pointed out that it is only unreasonable searches and seizures which come within the constitutional interdict. The test of reasonableness cannot be stated in rigid and absolute terms. "Each case is to be decided on its own facts and circumstances." Go-Bart Importing Company v. United States, 282 U.S. 344, 357 (1931).

The Fourth Amendment has never been held to require that every valid search and seizure be effected under the authority of a search warrant. Search and seizure incident to lawful arrest is a practice of ancient origin,11 and has long been an integral part of the law enforcement

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procedures of the United States12 and of the individual states.13

The opinions of this Court have clearly recognized that the search incident to arrest may, under appropriate circumstances, extend beyond the person of the one arrested to include the premises under his immediate control. Thus, in Agnello v. United States, supra, at 30, it was said:

The right without a search warrant contemporaneously to search persons lawfully arrested while committing crime and to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime as its fruits or as the means by which it was committed, as well as weapons and other things of effect an escape from custody is not to be doubted.14

It is equally clear that a search incident to [67 S.Ct. 1102] arrest, which is otherwise reasonable, is not automatically rendered invalid by the fact that a dwelling place, as contrasted to a business premises, is subjected to search.15

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Nor can support be found for the suggestion that the search could not validly extend beyond the room in which petitioner was arrested.16 Petitioner was in exclusive possession of a four room apartment. His control extended quite as much to the bedroom in which the draft cards were found as to the living room in which he was arrested. The canceled checks and other instrumentalities of the crimes charged in the warrants could easily have been concealed in any of the four rooms of the apartment. Other situations may arise in which the nature and size of the object sought or the lack of effective control over the premises on the part of the persons arrested may require that the searches be...

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