413 U.S. 433 (1973), 72-586, Cady v. Dombrowski

Docket Nº:No. 72-586
Citation:413 U.S. 433, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706
Party Name:Cady v. Dombrowski
Case Date:June 21, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 433

413 U.S. 433 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706




No. 72-586

United States Supreme Court

June 21, 1973

Argued March 21, 1973




Respondent had a one-car accident near a small Wisconsin town, while driving a rented Ford. The police had the car towed to a garage seven miles from the police station, where it was left unguarded outside. Respondent was arrested for drunken driving. Early the next day, an officer, looking for a service revolver which respondent (who had identified himself as a Chicago policeman) was thought to possess, made a warrantless search of the car and found in the trunk several items, some bloodied, which he removed. Later, on receipt of additional information emanating from respondent, a blood-stained body was located on respondent's brother's farm in a nearby county. Thereafter, through the windows of a disabled Dodge which respondent had left on the farm before renting the Ford, an officer observed other bloodied items. Following issuance of a search warrant, materials were taken from the Dodge, two of which (a sock and floor mat) were not listed in the return on the warrant among the items seized. Respondent's trial for murder, at which items seized from the cars were introduced in evidence, resulted in conviction which was upheld on appeal. In this habeas corpus action, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and held that certain evidence at the trial had been unconstitutionally seized.


1. The warrantless search of the Ford did not violate the Fourth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth. The search was not unreasonable, since the police had exercised a form of custody of the car, which constituted a hazard on the highway, and the disposition of which by respondent was precluded by his intoxicated and later comatose condition; and the revolver search was standard police procedure to protect the public from a weapon's possibly falling into improper hands. Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364, distinguished; Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, followed. Pp. 439-448.

2. The seizure of the sock and floor mat from the Dodge was not invalid, since the Dodge, the item "particularly described," was the subject of a proper search warrant. It is not constitutionally significant that the sock and mat were not listed in the

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warrant's return, which (contrary to the assumption of the Court of Appeals) was not filed prior to the search, and the warrant was thus validly outstanding at the time the articles were discovered. Pp. 448-450.

471 F.2d 280, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., wrote the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS, STEWART, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 450.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, announced by MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN.

Respondent Chester J. Dombrowski, was convicted in a Wisconsin state court of first-degree murder of Herbert McKinney and sentenced to life imprisonment. The conviction was upheld on appeal, State v. Dombrowski, 44 Wis.2d 486, 171 N.W.2d 349 (1969), the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejecting respondent's contention that certain evidence [93 S.Ct. 2525] admitted at the trial had been unconstitutionally seized. Respondent then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, asserting the same constitutional claim. The District Court denied the petition, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that one of the searches was unconstitutional under Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364 (1964), and the other unconstitutional

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for unrelated reasons. 471 F.2d 280 (1972). We granted certiorari, 409 U.S. 1059 (1972).


On September 9, 1969, respondent was a member of the Chicago, Illinois, police force and either owned or possessed a 1960 Dodge automobile. That day, he drove from Chicago to West Bend, Wisconsin, the county seat of Washington County, located some hundred-odd miles northwest of Chicago. He was identified as having been in two taverns in the small town of Kewaskum, Wisconsin, seven miles north of West Bend, during the late evening of September 9 and the early morning of September 10. At some time before noon on the 10th, respondent's automobile became disabled, and he had it towed to a farm owned by his brother in Fond du Lac County, which adjoins Washington County on the north. He then drove back to Chicago early that, afternoon with his brother in the latter's car.

Just before midnight of the same day, respondent rented a maroon 1967 Ford Thunderbird at O'Hare Field outside of Chicago, and apparently drove back to Wisconsin early the next morning. A tenant on his brother's farm saw a car answering the description of the rented car pull alongside the disabled 1960 Dodge at approximately 4 a.m. At approximately 9:30 a.m. on September 11, respondent purchased two towels, one light brown and the other blue, from a department store in Kewaskum.

From 7 to 10:15 p.m. of the 11th, respondent was in a steak house or tavern in West Bend. He ate dinner and also drank, apparently quite heavily. He left the tavern and drove the 1967 Thunderbird in a direction away from West Bend toward his brother's farm. On the way, respondent had an accident, with the Thunderbird breaking through a guard rail and crashing into a

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bridge abutment. A passing motorist drove him into Kewaskum, and, after being let off in Kewaskum, respondent telephoned the police. Two police officers picked him up at a tavern and drove to the scene of the accident. On the way, the officers noticed that respondent appeared to be drunk; he offered three conflicting versions of how the accident occurred.

At the scene, the police observed the 1967 Thunderbird and took various measurements relevant to the accident. Respondent was, in the opinion of the officers, drunk. He had informed them that he was a Chicago police officer. The Wisconsin policemen believed that Chicago police officers were required by regulation to carry their service revolvers at all times. After calling a tow truck to remove the disabled Thunderbird, and not finding the revolver on respondent's person, one of the officers looked into the front seat and glove compartment of that car for respondent's service revolver. No revolver was found. The wrecker arrived and the Thunderbird was towed to a privately owned garage in Kewaskum, approximately seven miles from the West Bend police station. It was left outside by the wrecker, and no police guard was posted. At 11:33 p.m. on the 11th, respondent was taken directly to the West Bend police station from the accident scene, and, after being interviewed by an assistant district attorney, to whom respondent again stated he was a Chicago policeman, respondent was formally arrested for drunken driving. Respondent was "in a drunken condition" and "incoherent at times." Because of his injuries sustained in the accident, the same two officers took respondent to a local hospital. He lapsed into an unexplained [93 S.Ct. 2526] coma, and a doctor, fearing the possibility of complications, had respondent hospitalized overnight for observation. One of the policemen remained at the hospital as a guard, and the other, Officer Weiss, drove at some time after

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2 a.m. on the 12th to the garage to which the 1967 Thunderbird had been towed after the accident.

The purpose of going to the Thunderbird, as developed on the motion to suppress, was to look for respondent's service revolver. Weiss testified that respondent did not have a revolver when he was arrested, and that the West Bend authorities were under the impression that Chicago police officers were required to carry their service revolvers at all times. He stated that the effort to find the revolver was "standard procedure in our department."

Weiss opened the door of the Thunderbird and found, on the floor of the car, a book of Chicago police regulations and, between the two front seats, a flashlight which appeared to have "a few spots of blood on it." He then opened the trunk of the car, which had been locked, and saw various items covered with what was later determined to be type O blood. These included a pair of police uniform trousers, a pair of gray trousers, a nightstick with the name "Dombrowski" stamped on it, a raincoat, a portion of a car floor mat, and a towel. The blood on the car mat was moist. The officer removed these items to the police station.

When, later that day, respondent was confronted with the condition of the items discovered in the trunk, he requested the presence of counsel before making any statement. After conferring with respondent, a lawyer told the police that respondent "authorized me to state he believed there was a body lying near the family picnic area at the north end of his brother's farm."

Fond du Lac County police went to the farm and found, in a dump, the body of a male, later identified as the decedent McKinney, clad only in a sport shirt. The deceased's head was bloody; a white sock was found near the body. In observing the area, one officer looked through the window of the disabled 1960 Dodge, located

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not far from where the body was found, and saw a pillowcase, back seat, and-briefcase covered with blood. Police officials obtained, on the evening of the 12th, returnable within 48 hours, warrants to search the 1960 Dodge and the 1967 Thunderbird, as well as orders to impound both automobiles. The 1960 Dodge was examined at the farm on the 12th and then towed to the police garage, where it was held as evidence. On the 13th, criminologists came from the Wisconsin Crime Laboratory in Madison and searched the Dodge; they seized the back and front...

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