333 U.S. 10 (1948), 329, Johnson v. United States

Docket NºNo. 329
Citation333 U.S. 10, 68 S.Ct. 367, 92 L.Ed. 436
Party NameJohnson v. United States
Case DateFebruary 02, 1948
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 10

333 U.S. 10 (1948)

68 S.Ct. 367, 92 L.Ed. 436



United States

No. 329

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 2, 1948

Argued December 18, 1947




1. Where officers detected the odor of burning opium emanating from a hotel room, entered without a search warrant and without knowing who was there, arrested the only occupant, searched the room and found opium and smoking apparatus, the search violated the Fourth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, and a conviction for a violation of the federal narcotic laws based on the evidence based on the evidence thus obtained cannot be sustained. Pp. 11-17.

2. As a general rule, the question when the right of privacy must reasonably yield to the right of search must be decided by a judicial officer, not by a policeman or government enforcement agent. Pp. 13-14.

3. There were no exceptional circumstances in this case sufficient to justify the failure of the officer to obtain a search warrant. Pp. 14-15.

Page 11

4. It being conceded that the officer did not have probable cause to arrest petitioner until he entered the room and found her to be the sole occupant, the search cannot be sustained as being incident to a valid arrest. Pp. 15-16.

5. The Government cannot at the same time justify an arrest by a search and justify the search by the arrest. Pp. 16-19.

6. An officer gaining access to private living quarters under color of his office and of the law must then have some valid basis in law for the intrusion. P. 17.

162 F.2d 562, reversed.

Petitioner was convicted in a Federal District Court on evidence obtained by a search made without a warrant. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. 162 F.2d 562. This Court granted certiorari. 332 U.S. 807. Reversed, p. 17.

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted on four counts charging violation of federal narcotic laws.1 The only question which brings the case here is whether it was lawful, without a warrant of any kind, to arrest petitioner and to search her living quarters.

Page 12

Taking the Government's version of disputed events, decision would rest on these facts:

At about 7:30 p.m. Detective Lieutenant Belland, an officer of the Seattle police force narcotic detail, received information from a confidential informer, who was also a known narcotic user, that unknown persons were smoking opium in the Europe Hotel. The informer was taken back to the hotel to interview the manager, but he returned at once saying he could smell burning opium in the hallway. Belland communicated with federal narcotic agents, and between 8:30 and 9 o'clock, went back to the hotel with four such agents. All were experienced in narcotic work and recognized at once a strong odor of burning opium, which to them was distinctive and unmistakable. The odor led to Room 1. The officers did not know who was occupying that room. They knocked and a voice inside asked who was there. "Lieutenant Belland," was the reply. There was a slight delay, some "shuffling or noise" in the room and then the defendant opened the door. The officer said, "I want to talk to you a little bit." She then, as he describes it, "stepped back acquiescently and admitted us." He said, "I want to talk to you about the opium smell in the room here." She denied that there was such a smell. Then he said, "I want you to consider yourself under arrest, because we are going to search the room." The search turned up incriminating opium and smoking apparatus, the latter being warm, apparently from recent use. This evidence the District Court refused to suppress before trial and admitted over defendant's objection at the trial. Conviction resulted and the Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.2

The defendant challenged the search of her home as a violation of the rights secured to her in common with others, by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

Page 13

The Government defends the search as legally justifiable, more particularly as incident to what it urges was a lawful arrest of the person.


The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides:

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.

Entry to defendant's living quarters, which was the beginning of the search, was demanded under color of office. It was granted in submission to authority, rather than as an understanding and intentional waiver of a constitutional right. Cf. Amos v. United States, 255 U.S. 313.

At the time entry was demanded, the officers were possessed of evidence which a magistrate might have found to be probable cause for issuing a search warrant. We cannot sustain defendant's contention, erroneously [68 S.Ct. 369] made on the strength of Taylor v. United States, 286 U.S. 1, that odors cannot be evidence sufficient to constitute probable grounds for any search. That decision held only that odors alone do not authorize a search without warrant. If the presence of odors is testified to before a magistrate and he finds the affiant qualified to know the odor, and it is one sufficiently distinctive to identify a forbidden substance, this Court has never held such a basis insufficient to justify issuance of a search warrant. Indeed it might very well be found to be evidence of most persuasive character.

The point of the Fourth Amendment which often is not grasped by zealous officers is not that it denies law enforcement

Page 14

the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate, instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.3 Any assumption that evidence sufficient to support a magistrate"s disinterested determination to issue a search warrant will justify the officers in making a search without a warrant would reduce the Amendment to a nullity, and leave the people"s homes secure only in the discretion of police officers.4 Crime, even in the privacy of one's own...

To continue reading

Request your trial