338 U.S. 160 (1949), 12, Brinegar v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 12
Citation:338 U.S. 160, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879
Party Name:Brinegar v. United States
Case Date:June 27, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court

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338 U.S. 160 (1949)

69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879



United States

No. 12

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 1949

Argued October 18-19, 1948




Petitioner was convicted in a federal district court for a violation of the Liquor Enforcement Act of 1936, on charges of transporting intoxicating liquor into Oklahoma contrary to the laws of that State. He challenged the validity of his conviction because of the use in evidence against him of liquor seized in a search of his automobile without a warrant and allegedly in violation of the Fourth Amendment. At the hearing on petitioner's motion to suppress this evidence, it appeared that one of the federal agents who made the search and seizure had arrested petitioner five months previously for illegally transporting liquor; that he had twice seen petitioner loading liquor into a car or truck in Missouri, where the sale of liquor was legal, and that he knew petitioner had a reputation for hauling liquor. This officer, accompanied by another, recognized petitioner and his car, which appeared to be heavily loaded, going west in Oklahoma not far from the Missouri line. They gave chase, overtook petitioner, and forced his car to the side of the road. Upon interrogation, petitioner admitted that he had twelve cases of liquor in his car, whereupon the officers searched the car, seized the liquor and arrested petitioner.


1. The facts taking place before petitioner made the incriminating statements were sufficient to show probable cause for the search, and the evidence seized was admissible against petitioner at the trial. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, followed. Pp. 165-171.

2. The officer's knowledge that petitioner was engaging in illicit liquor-running was not based wholly or largely on surmise or hearsay; the facts derived from his personal observation were sufficient in themselves, without the hearsay concerning general reputation, to sustain his conclusion concerning the illegal character of petitioner's operations. P. 172.

3. It was not improper to admit as evidence on the issue of probable cause the fact that the officer had arrested the petitioner several months before for illegal transportation of liquor, although the identical evidence was properly excluded at the trial on the issue of guilt. Pp. 172-174.

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4. Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers' knowledge, and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to warrant a belief by a man of reasonable caution that a crime is being committed. Pp. 175-176.

165 F.2d 512, affirmed.

Petitioner was convicted in the federal district court for a violation of the Liquor Enforcement Act. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 165 F.2d 512. This Court granted certiorari. 333 U.S. 841. Affirmed, p. 178.

RUTLEDGE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Brinegar was convicted of importing intoxicating liquor into Oklahoma from Missouri in violation of the federal statute which forbids such importation contrary [69 S.Ct. 1304] to the laws of any state.1 His conviction was based in

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part on the use in evidence against him of liquor seized from his automobile in the course of the alleged unlawful importation.

Prior to the trial, Brinegar moved to suppress this evidence as having been secured through an unlawful search and seizure.2 The motion was denied, as was a renewal of the objection at the trial.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, 165 F.2d 512, and certiorari was sought solely on the ground that the search and seizure contravened the Fourth Amendment, and therefore the use of the liquor in evidence vitiated the conviction. We granted the writ to determine this question. 333 U.S. 841.

The facts are substantially undisputed. At about six o'clock on the evening of March 3, 1947, Malsed, an investigator of the Alcohol Tax Unit, and Creehan, a special investigator, were parked in a car beside a highway near the Quapaw Bridge in northeastern Oklahoma. The point was about five miles west of the Missouri-Oklahoma line. Brinegar drove past headed west in his Ford coupe. Malsed had arrested him about five months earlier for illegally transporting liquor; had seen him loading liquor into a car or truck in Joplin, Missouri, on at least two occasions during the preceding six months, and knew him to have a reputation for hauling liquor. As Brinegar passed, Malsed recognized both him and the Ford. He told Creehan, who was driving the officers' car, that

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Brinegar was the driver of the passing car. Both agents later testified that the car, but not especially its rear end, appeared to be "heavily loaded," and "weighted with something." Brinegar increased his speed as he passed the officers. They gave chase. After pursuing him for about a mile at top speed, they gained on him as his car skidded on a curve, sounded their siren, overtook him, and crowded his car to the side of the road by pulling across in front of it. The highway was one leading from Joplin, Missouri, toward Vinita, Oklahoma, Brinegar's home.

As the agents got out of their car and walked back toward petitioner, Malsed said, "Hello, Brinegar, how much liquor have you got in the car?" or "How much liquor have you got in the car this time?" Petitioner replied, "Not too much," or "Not so much." After further questioning, he admitted that he had twelve cases in the car. Malsed testified that one case, which was on the front seat, was visible from outside the car, but petitioner testified that it was covered by a lap robe. Twelve more cases were found under and behind the front seat. The agents then placed Brinegar under arrest and seized the liquor.

The district judge, after a hearing on the motion to suppress at which the facts stated above appeared in evidence, was of the opinion that

the mere fact that the agents knew that this defendant was engaged [69 S.Ct. 1305] in hauling whiskey, even coupled with the statement that the car appeared to be weighted, would not be probable cause for the search of this car.

Therefore, he thought, there was no probable cause when the agents began the chase. He held, however, that the voluntary admission made by petitioner after his car had been stopped constituted probable cause for a search, regardless of the legality of the arrest and detention, and that, therefore, the evidence was admissible. At the trial, as has been said, the court overruled petitioner's renewal of the objection.

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The Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting, took essentially the view held by the District Court. The dissenting judge thought that the search was unlawful, and therefore statements made during its course could not justify the search.

The crucial question is whether there was probable cause for Brinegar's arrest, in the light of prior adjudications on this problem, more particularly Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, which, on its face, most closely approximates the situation presented here.3

The Carroll decision held that, under the Fourth Amendment, a valid search of a vehicle moving on a public highway may be had without a warrant, but only if probable cause for the search exists.4 The Court then went on to rule that the facts presented amounted to probable cause for the search of the automobile there involved. 267 U.S. 132, 160.

In the Carroll case, three federal prohibition agents and a state officer stopped and searched the defendants' car on a highway leading from Detroit to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and seized a quantity of liquor discovered in the search. About three months before the search, the two defendants and another man called on two of the agents at an apartment in Grand Rapids and, unaware that they were dealing with federal agents, agreed to sell one of the agents three cases of liquor. Both agents noticed the Oldsmobile roadster in which the three men came to the

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apartment and its license number. Presumably because the official capacity of the proposed purchaser was suspected by the defendants, the liquor was never delivered.

About a week later the same two agents, while patrolling the road between Grand Rapids and Detroit on the lookout for violations of the National Prohibition Act, were passed by the defendants, who were proceeding in a direction from Grand Rapids toward Detroit in the same Oldsmobile roadster. The agents followed the defendants for some distance but lost trace of them. Still later, on the occasion of the search, while the officers were patrolling the same highway, they met and passed the defendants, who were in the same roadster, going in a direction from Detroit toward Grand Rapids. Recognizing the defendants, the agents turned around, pursued them, stopped them about sixteen miles outside Grand Rapids, searched their car and seized the liquor it carried.

This Court ruled that the information held by the agents, together with the judicially noticed fact that Detroit was "one of the most active centers for introducing illegally into this country spirituous liquors for distribution into the interior" (267 U.S. at 160), constituted probable cause for the search.


Obviously the basic facts held to constitute probable cause in the Carroll case were very similar to the basic facts here. In each case, the search was of an automobile moving on a public highway, and was made without a warrant by federal officers charged with enforcing federal statutes outlawing the transportation of intoxicating liquors (except under conditions not complied with).5

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In each instance, the officers were patrolling the highway in the discharge of their duty. And in each, before stopping the car or starting to pursue it, they recognized both the driver and the car, from recent personal...

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