334 U.S. 699 (1948), 427, Trupiano v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 427
Citation:334 U.S. 699, 68 S.Ct. 1229, 92 L.Ed. 1663
Party Name:Trupiano v. United States
Case Date:June 14, 1948
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 699

334 U.S. 699 (1948)

68 S.Ct. 1229, 92 L.Ed. 1663



United States

No. 427

United States Supreme Court

June 14, 1948

Argued March 9,1948




Federal agents who had known for at least three weeks that a building on a farm was being used for illicit distilling made a night-time raid thereon without a warrant of arrest or a search warrant. They were led onto the farm and to the building by the owner, who was an informer. Through an open door, they saw one of the petitioners engaged in illicit distilling. An agent entered, arrested him, and seized the contraband apparatus and material. The other petitioners were arrested later. Charged with violations of federal revenue laws, they moved to suppress the evidence as having been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.


1. The arrest was lawful as an arrest of a person who was committing a felony in the discernible presence of a law enforcement officer at a place where the officer was lawfully present. Pp. 700-705.

(a) The absence of a warrant of arrest, even though there was sufficient time to obtain one, does not invalidate an arrest under these circumstances. P. 705.

2. The seizure of the contraband property was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and not justified as incident to the lawful arrest. Pp. 705-710.

(a) In the circumstances of this case, there was no excuse for failure to obtain a search warrant. Pp. 705-706, 708.

(b) The fact that the property actually seized was contraband, which doubtless would have been described in a warrant had one issued, does not legalize the seizure. P. 707.

(c) The proximity of the contraband property to the arrested person at the moment of his arrest was a fortuitous circumstance inadequate to legalize the seizure. Pp. 707-708.

(d) The presence or absence of an arrestee at the exact time and place of a foreseeable and anticipated seizure does not determine the validity of that seizure if it occurs without a warrant. P. 708.

(e) The mere fact that there is a valid arrest does not ipso facto legalize a search or seizure without a warrant. P. 708.

Page 700

(f) Harris v. United States, 331 U.S. 145, distinguished; Taylor v. United States, 286 U.S. 1, followed. Pp. 708-709.

3. Petitioners were entitled to have the unlawfully seized property suppressed as evidence; but, since the property was contraband, they were not entitled to have it returned to them. P. 710.

163 F.2d 828, reversed.

Petitioners, charged with violations of federal revenue laws, moved to suppress certain evidence alleged to have been illegally obtained. An order of the District Court denying the motion, 70 F.Supp. 764, was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals, 163 F.2d 828. This Court granted certiorari. 332 U.S. 841. Reversed, p. 710.

MURPHY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case adds another chapter to the body of law growing out of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. That Amendment 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.

In other words, the Fourth Amendment is a recognition of the fact that, in this nation, individual liberty depends in large part upon freedom from unreasonable intrusion by those in authority. It is the duty of this Court to give effect to that freedom.

Page 701

In January, 1946, the petitioners sought to lease part of the Kell farm in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and to erect a building thereon. Kell suspected that they intended to build and operate an illegal still. He accordingly reported the matter to the appropriate federal authority, the Alcohol Tax Unit of the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The federal agents told Kell to accept the proposition, provided he did nothing to entice or encourage the petitioners into going ahead with their plans and provided he kept the agents informed of all developments. Nilsen, one of the agents, was assigned in February to work on the farm in the disguise of a "dumb farm hand" and to accept work at the still if petitioners should offer it.

Toward the end of March, 1946, Kell agreed with petitioners to let them rent part of his farm for $300 a month. Kell and Nilsen assisted petitioners in the erection of the building, a roughly constructed barn about 200 yards from the Kell farmhouse. Nilson also assisted in the erection of the still and the vats.

Operation of the still began about May 13, 1946. Nilsen thereafter worked as "mash man" at a salary of $100 a week, which he turned over to the Government. During this period, he was in constant communication with his fellow agents. By prearrangement, he would meet one or more of the agents at various places within a few miles of the Kell farm; at these meetings, "the conversation would be about the still building I had assisted in erecting or about the illicit distillery that I was working at on the Kell farm." On May 20, he met with one of his superior officers and gave him samples of alcohol, several sugar bags, a yeast wrapper and an empty five-gallon can which had been taken from the still premises.

On May 26, Nilsen received a two-way portable radio set from his superiors. He used this set to transmit frequent bulletins on the activities of the petitioners. On

Page 702

the basis of radio intelligence supplied by Nilsen, [68 S.Ct. 1231] a truckload of alcohol was seized on May 31 about an hour after it had left the farm.

At about 9 p.m. in the evening of June 3, 1946, Nilsen radioed his superior that the still operators were awaiting the arrival of a load of sugar, and that alcohol was to be taken from the farm when the sugar truck arrived. Nilsen apparently knew then that a raid was scheduled for that night, for he told Kell during the evening that "tonight is the night." He radioed at 11 p.m. that the truck had been delayed but that petitioners Roett and Antoniole were at the still.

Three federal agents then drove to within three miles of the farm, at which point they were met by Kell. The remainder of the distance was traversed in Kell's automobile. They arrived at the farm at about 11:45 p.m. The agents stated that the odor of fermenting mash and the sound of a gasoline motor were noticeable as the car was driven onto the farm premises; the odor became stronger and the noise louder as they alighted from the car and approached the building containing the still. Van De Car, one of the agents, went around one end of the building. Looking through an open door into a dimly lighted interior, he could see a still column, a boiler and gasoline pump in operation. He also saw Antoniole bending down near the pump. He entered the building and placed Antoniole under arrest. Thereupon he "seized the illicit distillery."

After this arrest and seizure, Van De Car looked about further and observed a large number of five-gallon cans which he later found to contain alcohol and some vats which contained fermenting mash. Another agent, Casey, testified that he could see several of these cans through the open door before he entered; he subsequently counted the cans and found that there were 262 of them. After he entered, he saw the remainder of the distillery

Page 703

equipment, including four large mash vats. The third agent, Gettel, proceeded to a small truck standing in the yard and "searched it thoroughly for papers and things of an evidentiary nature." It does not appear whether he was successful in his search or whether he took anything from the truck.

A few minutes later, Roett was arrested outside the building. Petitioners Trupiano and Riccardelli apparently were arrested later that night by other agents, the place and the circumstances not being revealed by the record before us. In addition, three other persons were arrested that night because of their connections with the illegal operations; one of them, who was unknown to Nilsen, was arrested when he arrived at the farm with a truck loaded with coke.

The agents engaged in this raid without securing a search warrant or warrants of arrest. It is undenied that they had more than adequate opportunity to obtain such warrants before the raid occurred, various federal judges and commissioners being readily available.

All of the persons arrested were charged with various violations of the Internal Revenue Code arising out of their ownership and operation of the distillery. Prior to the return of an indictment against them, the four petitioners filed in the District Court for the District of New Jersey a motion alleging that the federal agents had illegally seized "a still, alcohol, mash and other equipment," and asking that "all such evidence" be excluded and suppressed at any trial, and that "all of the aforesaid property" be returned. The District Court denied the motion after a hearing, holding that the seizure was reasonable, and hence constitutional. 70 F.Supp. 764. The Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed per curiam the order of the District Court. 163 F.id 828. Thus, we have a case where contraband property was seized by federal agents without a search warrant under

Page 704

circumstances where such a warrant could easily have been obtained. The Government, however, claims that the failure to secure the warrant has no effect upon the validity of the seizure. Reference is made to the well established right of law enforcement officers to arrest without a warrant for a felony committed in their presence, Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 156-157, a right said to be unaffected by the [68 S.Ct. 1232] fact...

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