403 U.S. 443 (1971), 323, Coolidge v. New Hampshire

Docket Nº:No. 323
Citation:403 U.S. 443, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 29 L.Ed.2d 564
Party Name:Coolidge v. New Hampshire
Case Date:June 21, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 443

403 U.S. 443 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 2022, 29 L.Ed.2d 564



New Hampshire

No. 323

United States Supreme Court

June 21, 1971

Argued January 12, 1971



Police went to petitioner's home on January 28, 1964, to question him about a murder. In the course of their inquiry, he showed them three guns, and he agreed to take a lie detector test on February 2. The test was inconclusive on the murder, but, during its course, petitioner admitted a theft. In petitioner's absence, two other policemen came to the house and questioned petitioner's wife to check petitioner's story and corroborate his admission of the theft. Unaware of the visit of the other officers who had been shown the guns and knowing little about the murder weapon, the police asked about any guns there might be in the house, and were shown four by petitioner's wife which she offered to let them take. After one policeman first declined the offer, they took the guns, along with various articles of petitioner's clothing his wife made available to them. On February 19, petitioner was arrested in his house for the murder, and, on that date, a warrant to search petitioner's automobile was applied for by the police chief and issued by the Attorney General (who had assumed charge of the investigation and was later the chief prosecutor at the trial), acting as a justice of the peace. The car, which, at the time of the arrest, was parked in petitioner's driveway, was subsequently towed to the police station, where, on February 21 and on two occasions the next year, it was searched. Vacuum sweepings from the car as well as from the clothing were used as evidence at the trial, along with one of the guns made available by petitioner's wife. Following the overruling of pretrial motions to suppress that evidence, petitioner was convicted, and the State Supreme Court affirmed.


1. The warrant for the search and seizure of petitioner's automobile did not satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth, because it was not issued by a "neutral and detached magistrate." Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 14. Pp. 449-453.

2. The basic constitutional rule is that

searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment -- subject only to a few specifically established and well

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defined exceptions,

and, on the facts of this case, a warrantless search and seizure of the car cannot be justified under those exceptions. Pp. 453-482.

(a) The seizure of the car in the driveway cannot be justified as incidental to the arrest, which took place inside the house. Even assuming, arguendo, that the police could properly have made a warrantless search of the car in the driveway when they arrested petitioner, they could not have done so at their leisure after its removal. Pp. 455-457.

(b) Under the circumstances present here -- where the police for some time had known of the probable role of the car in the crime, petitioner had had ample opportunity to destroy incriminating evidence, the house was guarded at the time of arrest and petitioner had no access to the car -- there were no exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless search even had it been made before the car was taken to the police station, and the special exceptions for automobile searches in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, and Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, are clearly inapplicable. Cf. Dyke v. Taylor Implement Mfg. Co., 391 U.S. 216. Pp. 458-464.

(c) Under certain circumstances, the police may, without a warrant seize, evidence [91 S.Ct. 2027] in "plain view," though not for that reason alone, and only when the discovery of the evidence is inadvertent. That exception is inapplicable to the facts of the instant case, where the police had ample opportunity to obtain a valid warrant, knew in advance the car's description and location, intended to seize it when they entered on petitioner's property, and no contraband or dangerous objects were involved. Pp. 464-473.

3. No search and seizure were implicated in the February 2 visit when the police obtained the guns and clothing from petitioner's wife, and hence they needed no warrant. The police, who exerted no effort to coerce or dominate her, were not obligated to refuse her offer for them to take the guns, and, in making these and the other items available to the police, she was not acting as the instrument or agent of the police. Pp. 484-490.

109 N.H. 403, 260 A.2d 547, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J. (as to Part III), and HARLAN (as to Parts I, II-D, and III), DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. HARLAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 490. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring and dissenting opinion, post, p. 492. BLACK, J., filed a concurring

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and dissenting opinion, in a portion of Part I and in Parts II and III of which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 493. WHITE, J., filed a concurring and dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 510.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court. *

We are called upon in this case to decide issues under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments arising in the context of a state criminal trial for the commission of a particularly brutal murder. As in every case, our single duty is to determine the issues presented in accord with the Constitution and the law.

Pamela Mason, a 14-year-old girl, left her home in Manchester, New Hampshire, on the evening of January 13, 1964, during a heavy snowstorm, apparently in response to a man's telephone call for a babysitter. Eight days later, after a thaw, her body was found by the side of a major north-south highway several miles away. She had been murdered. The event created great alarm in the area, and the police immediately began a massive investigation.

On January 28, having learned from a neighbor that the petitioner, Edward Coolidge, had been away from home on the evening of the girl's disappearance, the police went to his house to question him. They asked

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him, among other things, if he owned any guns, and he produced three, two shotguns and a rifle. They also asked whether he would take a lie detector test concerning his account of his activities on the night of the disappearance. He agreed to do so on the following Sunday, his day off. The police later described his attitude on the occasion of this visit as fully "cooperative." His wife was in the house throughout the interview.

On the following Sunday, a policeman called Coolidge early in the morning and asked him to come down to the police station for the trip to Concord, New Hampshire, where the lie detector test was to be administered. That evening, two plainclothes policemen arrived at the Coolidge house, where Mrs. Coolidge was waiting with her mother-in-law for her husband's return. These two policemen were not the two who had visited the house earlier in the week, and they apparently did not know that Coolidge had displayed three guns for inspection during the earlier visit. The plainclothesmen told Mrs. Coolidge that her husband was in "serious trouble," and probably would not be home that night. They asked Coolidge's mother to leave, and proceeded to question Mrs. Coolidge. During the course of the interview, they obtained from her four guns belonging to Coolidge, and some clothes that Mrs. Coolidge thought her husband might have been wearing on the evening of Pamela Mason's disappearance.

[91 S.Ct. 2028] Coolidge was held in jail on an unrelated charge that night, but he was released the next day.1 During the ensuing two and a half weeks, the State accumulated a quantity of evidence to support the theory that it was he who had killed Pamela Mason. On February 19, the results of the investigation were presented at a meeting between the police officers working on the case and the

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State Attorney General, who had personally taken charge of all police activities relating to the murder, and was later to serve as chief prosecutor at the trial. At this meeting, it was decided that there was enough evidence to justify the arrest of Coolidge on the murder charge and a search of his house and two cars. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Manchester police chief made formal application, under oath, for the arrest and search warrants. The complaint supporting the warrant for a search of Coolidge's Pontiac automobile, the only warrant that concerns us here, stated that the affiant

has probable cause to suspect and believe, and does suspect and believe, and herewith offers satisfactory evidence, that there are certain objects and things used in the Commission of said offense, now kept, and concealed in or upon a certain vehicle, to-wit: 1951 Pontiac two-door sedan. . . .

The warrants were then signed and issued by the Attorney General himself, acting as a justice of the peace. Under New Hampshire law in force at that time, all justices of the peace were authorized to issue search warrants. N.H.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 595:1 (repealed 1969).

The police arrested Coolidge in his house on the day the warrant issued. Mrs. Coolidge asked whether she might remain in the house with her small child, but was told that she must stay elsewhere, apparently in part because the police believed that she would be harassed by reporters if she were accessible to them. When she asked whether she might take her car, she was told that both cars had been "impounded," and that the police would provide transportation for her. Some time later, the police called a towing company, and, about two and a half hours after Coolidge had been taken into custody, the cars were towed to the police station....

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