386 U.S. 58 (1967), 103, Cooper v. California

Docket Nº:No. 103
Citation:386 U.S. 58, 87 S.Ct. 788, 17 L.Ed.2d 730
Party Name:Cooper v. California
Case Date:February 20, 1967
Court:United States Supreme Court

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386 U.S. 58 (1967)

87 S.Ct. 788, 17 L.Ed.2d 730




No. 103

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 20, 1967

Argued December 8, 1966



Petitioner was convicted of a narcotics violation in a California state court partly through evidence which the police seized in a warrantless search of his car a week after his arrest. Pending forfeiture proceedings, the car had been impounded "as evidence" pursuant to a statutory provision for the seizure and forfeiture of vehicles used in violation of the narcotics laws. The state appellate court, in a decision which the supreme court declined to review, held the search and seizure unconstitutional under Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364, but held the evidentiary error harmless under the State Constitution's harmless error provision.

Held: Under the circumstances of this case, the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by making a search, closely related to the reason petitioner was arrested, of a car which they validly held for use as evidence in a forfeiture proceeding. Preston, supra, distinguished. Pp. 59-62.

234 Cal.App.2d 587, 44 Cal.Rptr. 483, affirmed.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted in a California state court of selling heroin to a police informer. The conviction rested in part on the introduction in evidence of a small piece of a brown paper sack seized by police without a warrant from the glove compartment of an automobile which police, upon petitioner's arrest, had impounded and were holding in a garage. The search occurred a week after the arrest of petitioner. Petitioner appealed his conviction

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to the California District Court of Appeal, which, considering itself bound by our holding and opinion in Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364, held that the search and seizure violated the Fourth Amendment's ban of unreasonable searches and seizures. That court went on, however, to determine that this was harmless error under Art. VI, § 4 1/2 of California's Constitution, which provides that judgments should not be set aside or reversed unless the court is of the opinion that the error "resulted in a miscarriage of justice." 234 Cal.App.2d 587, 44 Cal.Rptr. 483. The California Supreme Court declined to hear the case. We granted certiorari along with Chapman v. California, ante, p. 18, to consider whether the California harmless error constitutional provision could be used in this way to ignore the alleged federal constitutional error. 384 U.S. 904. We have today passed upon the question in Chapman, but do not reach it in this case, because we are satisfied that the lower court erroneously decided that our Preston case required that this search be held an unreasonable one within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

We made it clear in Preston that whether a search and seizure is unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case, and pointed out, in particular, that searches of cars that are constantly movable may make the search of a car without a warrant a reasonable one although the result might be the opposite in a search of a home, a store, or other fixed piece of property. 376 U.S. at 366-367. In Preston, the search was sought to be justified primarily on the ground that it was incidental to and part of a lawful arrest. There we said that, "[o]nce an accused is under arrest and in custody, then a search made at another place, without a warrant, is simply not incident to the arrest." Id. at 367. In the Preston case, it was alternatively argued that the warrantless

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search, after the arrest was over and while Preston's car was being held for him by the police, was justified because the officers had probable cause to believe the car was stolen. But the police arrested Preston for vagrancy, not theft, and no claim was made that the police had authority to hold his car on that charge. The search was therefore to be treated as though his car was in his own or his agent's possession, safe from intrusions by the police or anyone else. The situation involving petitioner's car is quite different.

Here, California's Attorney General concedes that the search was not incident to an arrest. It is argued, however, that the search was reasonable on other grounds. Section 11611 of the California Health & Safety Code provides that any officer making an arrest for a narcotics violation shall seize and deliver to the State Division of Narcotic Enforcement any vehicle used to store, conceal, transport, sell or facilitate the possession of narcotics, such vehicle "to be held as evidence until a forfeiture has been declared or a release ordered."1 (Emphasis supplied.) Petitioner's vehicle, which evidence showed had been used to carry on his narcotics possession and transportation, was impounded by the officers, and their duty required that it be kept "as evidence" until forfeiture proceedings were carried to a conclusion. The lower court concluded, as a matter of state law, that the state forfeiture statute did not, by "clear and express language,"

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authorize the officers to search petitioner's car. 234 Cal.App.2d at 598, 44 Cal.Rptr. at 491. But the question here is not whether the search was authorized by state law. The question is, rather, whether the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Just as a search authorized by state law may be an unreasonable one under that amendment, so may a search not expressly authorized by state law be justified as a constitutionally reasonable one. While it is true, as the lower court said, that [87 S.Ct. 791] "lawful custody of an automobile does not, of itself, dispense with constitutional requirements of searches thereafter made of it," ibid., the reason for and nature of the custody may constitutionally justify the search. Preston was arrested for vagrancy. An arresting officer took his car to the station, rather than just leaving it on the street. It was not suggested that this was done other than for Preston's convenience, or that the police had any right to impound the car and keep it from Preston or whomever he might send for it. The fact that the police had custody of Preston's car was totally unrelated to the vagrancy charge for which they arrested him. So was their subsequent search of the car. This case is not Preston, nor is it controlled by it. Here, the officers seized petitioner's car because they were required to do so by state law. They seized it because of the crime for which...

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