357 U.S. 301 (1958), 126, Miller v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 126
Citation:357 U.S. 301, 78 S.Ct. 1190, 2 L.Ed.2d 1332
Party Name:Miller v. United States
Case Date:June 23, 1958
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 301

357 U.S. 301 (1958)

78 S.Ct. 1190, 2 L.Ed.2d 1332



United States

No. 126

United States Supreme Court

June 23, 1958

Argued January 28, 1958




In the District of Columbia, officers without a warrant knocked on the door of petitioner's apartment and, upon his inquiry, "Who's there?" replied in a low voice, "Police." Petitioner opened the door, but quickly tried to close it, whereupon the officers broke the door, entered, arrested petitioner and seized marked bills which were later admitted as evidence over petitioner's objection at a trial in which he was convicted of violations of the narcotics laws.

Held: petitioner could not lawfully be arrested in his home by officers breaking in without first giving him notice of their authority and purpose, the arrest was unlawful, the evidence seized was inadmissible, and the conviction is reversed. Pp. 302-314.

(a) The validity of an arrest without a warrant for violation of federal law by local peace officers is to be determined by reference to local law. Pp. 305-306.

(b) Under District of Columbia law, peace officers, otherwise authorized to break the door of a home to make an arrest, may do so only if denied admittance after notice of their authority and purpose. Pp. 306-310.

(c) Since no express announcement was made, and since the evidence in this case was not sufficient to prove that petitioner knew the purpose of the arresting officers, the arrest was unlawful. Pp. 310-313.

100 U.S.App.D.C. 302, 244 F.2d 750, reversed.

Page 302

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, William Miller, together with Bessie Byrd and her brother, Arthur R. Shepherd, was tried and convicted in the District Court for the District of Columbia for conspiracy to commit violations, and violations, of the federal narcotics laws. 26 U.S.C. (Supp. V) § 4704(a); 21 U.S.C. § 174; 18 U.S.C. § 371. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed, one judge dissenting, 100 U.S.App.D.C. 302, 244 F.2d 750. We granted certiorari, 353 U.S. 957, to determine whether evidence seized at the time of petitioner's arrest was properly admitted against the petitioner. The evidence was $100 of marked currency which was seized by the federal officers who arrested the petitioner and Bessie Byrd at their apartment.

On March 25, 1955, at 1:35 a.m., Clifford Reed was arrested, under an arrest warrant, on a washington, D.C., street on suspicion of narcotics offenses. Reed revealed to Wilson, a federal narcotics agent, that he purchased heroin in 100-capsule quantities from the petitioner through Shepherd. Agent Wilson knew of the petitioner as one who had trafficked in narcotics and had been convicted for a narcotics offense in 1953. Reed said that he was to meet Shepherd later that morning to make a purchase. Agent Wilson enlisted his aid to apprehend Shepherd and the petitioner. About 3 a.m., another federal narcotics agent, Lewis, carrying $100 of marked currency, went with Reed in a taxicab to Shepherd's home. Reed introduced Lewis to Shepherd as a buyer. Shepherd accepted the $100 and agreed to secure 100 capsules of heroin from the petitioner and deliver them to Lewis at Reed's apartment. Shepherd proceeded alone in the taxicab to the petitioner's apartment.

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The taxicab was followed by agent Wilson, officer Wurms of the Metropolitan Police Department, and other officers in police cars.1 Shepherd was seen to leave the taxicab in front of the apartment house where the petitioner and Bessie Byrd occupied a two-room-and-bath basement apartment. The taxicab waited. Shepherd entered the basement, but agent Wilson, who looked into the basement hall, could not see where he went. Shepherd came out of the basement within a few minutes, and reentered the taxicab. The taxicab was proceeding toward Reed's apartment when the officers following in the police cars intercepted it. Shepherd was arrested and searched. He did not have the marked bills on his person, but admitted to agent Wilson and officer Wurms that a package of 100 capsules of narcotics found under the taxicab's front seat was put there by him when the police cars stopped the taxicab. He said that he had taken the package from behind a fire extinguisher in the basement hall where he had been sent by a "fellow" with Reed who had promised him $10 for getting it.

The federal officers returned immediately to the apartment building. About 3:45 a.m., agent Wilson and officer Wurms went to the door of the petitioner's apartment. Officer Wurms knocked and, upon the inquiry from [78 S.Ct. 1193] within -- "Who's there?" -- replied in a low voice, "Police." The petitioner opened the door on an attached [78 S.Ct. 1191] door chain and asked what the officers were doing there. Before either responded, he attempted to close the door. Thereupon, according to officer Wurms, "we put our hands inside the door and pulled and ripped the chain off,

Page 304

and entered."2 The officers had no arrest or search warrant. They did not expressly demand admission or state their purpose for their presence,3 nor did they place the petitioner under arrest until after they entered the apartment.

Bessie Byrd was also arrested in the apartment, and turned over the cash she had in her housecoat. The cash included $34 of the marked currency. After an extended search, the remaining $66 of marked currency was found, some in a hatbox in a closet and the rest within the covers of a bed in the bedroom.

The Government contends that there was probable cause for arresting the petitioner, and that the marked currency

Page 305

was properly admitted in evidence because it was seized as an incident to a lawful arrest. Harris v. United States, 331 U.S. 145. The petitioner's argument breaks down into three contentions: (1) that the officers had no probable cause to arrest the petitioner without a warrant; (2) that the search was not justified as being an incident of a lawful arrest; (3) that the arrest, and therefore the search, was, in any event, unlawful because the officers broke the door of petitioner's home without first giving notice of their authority and purpose in demanding admission. If any one of these contentions prevails, it is agreed that the marked money was inadmissible in evidence. In the view we take, we need consider only petitioner's third contention.

The lawfulness of the arrest of petitioner depends upon the power of the arresting officers to "break" the doors of a home in order to arrest without warrant persons suspected of having committed narcotics offenses. Agent Wilson did not have statutory authority to arrest without a warrant, although officer Wurms, as a member of the Metropolitan Police Department, did have such authority.4 This Court has said, in the similar circumstance of an [78 S.Ct. 1194] arrest for violation of federal law by state peace officers, that the lawfulness of the arrest without warrant is to be determined by reference to state law. United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, 589; Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 15. By like reasoning, the validity of the arrest

Page 306

of petitioner is to be determined by reference to the law of the District of Columbia.

In making reference to that law, we are mindful of our policy of not interfering with local rules of law fashioned by the courts of the District of Columbia. Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463, 476; Griffin v. United States, 336 U.S. 704, 715. But the Government agrees with petitioner that the validity of the entry to execute the arrest without warrant must be tested by criteria identical with those embodied in 18 U.S.C. § 3109, which deals with entry to execute a search warrant.5 That section provides that an officer executing a search warrant may break open a door only if, "after notice of his authority and purpose," he is denied admittance. The Government states in its brief that,

where an arrest is made on probable cause, rather than a warrant, these statutory requirements must be met before an officer can force entry into an apartment.

These statutory requirements are substantially identical to those judicially developed by the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Accarino v. United States, 85 U.S.App.D.C. 394, 403, 179 F.2d 456, 465. Since the rule of Accarino bears such a close relationship to a statute which is not confined in operation to the District of Columbia, we believe that review is warranted here. Cf. Del Vecchio v. Bowers, 296 U.S. 280; Carroll v. United States, 354 U.S. 394, 414.

From earliest days, the common law drastically limited the authority of law officers to break the door of a house

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to effect an arrest.6 Such action invades the precious interest of privacy summed up in the ancient adage that a man's house is his castle. As early as the 13th Yearbook of Edward IV (1461-1483), at folio 9, there is a recorded holding that it was unlawful for the sheriff to break the doors of a man's house to arrest him in a civil suit in debt or trespass, for the arrest was then only for the private interest of a party. Remarks attributed7 to William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, [78 S.Ct. 1195] on the occasion of debate in Parliament on the searches incident to the enforcement of an excise on cider, eloquently expressed the principle:

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter -- all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!

But the common law...

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