414 U.S. 218 (1973), 72-936, United States v. Robinson

Docket NºNo. 72-936
Citation414 U.S. 218, 94 S.Ct. 467, 38 L.Ed.2d 427
Party NameUnited States v. Robinson
Case DateDecember 11, 1973
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

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414 U.S. 218 (1973)

94 S.Ct. 467, 38 L.Ed.2d 427

United States



No. 72-936

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 11, 1973

Argued October 9, 1973




Having, as a result of a previous check of respondent's operator's permit, probable cause to arrest respondent for driving while his license was revoked, a police officer made a full custody arrest of respondent for such offense. In accordance with prescribed procedures, the officer made a search of respondent's [94 S.Ct. 469] person, in the course of which he found in a coat pocket a cigarette package containing heroin. The heroin was admitted into evidence at the District Court trial, which resulted in respondent's conviction for a drug offense. The Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that the heroin had been obtained as a result of a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Held: In the case of a lawful custodial arrest, a full search of the person is not only an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, but is also a "reasonable" search under that Amendment. Pp. 224-237.

(a) A search incident to a valid arrest is not limited to a frisk of the suspect's outer clothing and removal of such weapons as the arresting officer may, as a result of such frisk, reasonably believe and ascertain that the suspect has in his possession, and the absence of probable fruits or further evidence of the particular crime for which the arrest is made does not narrow the standards applicable to such a search. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, distinguished. Pp. 227-229; 23235.

(b) A custodial arrest of a suspect based on probable cause is a reasonable intrusion under the Fourth Amendment and, a search incident to the arrest requires no additional justification, such as the probability in a particular arrest situation that weapons or evidence would, in fact, be found upon the suspect's person; and whether or not there was present one of the reasons supporting the authority for a search of the person incident to a lawful arrest need not be litigated in each case. P. 235.

(c) Since the custodial arrest here gave rise to the authority

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to search, it is immaterial that the arresting officer did not fear the respondent or suspect that he was armed. Pp. 236-237.

153 U.S.App.D.C. 114, 471 F.2d 1082, reversed

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. POWELL J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 237. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS and BRENNAN, JJ., joined, post, p. 238.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Robinson was convicted in United States District Court for the District of Columbia of the possession and facilitation of concealment of heroin in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 4704(a) (1964 ed.), and 21 U.S.C. § 174 (1964 ed.). He was sentenced to concurrent terms of imprisonment for these offenses. On his appeal to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit,

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that court first remanded the case to the District Court for an evidentiary hearing concerning the scope of the search of respondent's person which and occurred at the time of his arrest. 145 U.S.App.D.C. 46, 447 F.2d 1215 (1971). The District Court made findings of fact and conclusions of law adverse to respondent, and he again appealed. This time the Court of Appeals en banc reversed the judgment of conviction, holding that the heroin introduced in evidence against respondent had been obtained as a result of a search which violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 153 U.S.App.D.C. 114, 471 F.2d 1082 (1972). We granted certiorari, 410 U.S. 982 (1973), and set the case for argument together with Gustafson v. Florida, No. 71-1669, post, p. 260, also decided today.

On April 23, 1968, at approximately 11 p.m., Officer Richard Jenks, a 15-year veteran of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, observed the respondent driving a 1965 Cadillac near the intersection of 8th and C Streets, N.E., in the District of Columbia. Jenks, as a result of previous investigation following a check of respondent's operator's permit four days earlier, determined there was reason to [94 S.Ct. 470] believe that respondent was operating a motor vehicle after the revocation of his operator's permit. This is an offense defined by statute in the District of Columbia which carries a mandatory minimum jail term, a mandatory minimum fine, or both. D.C.Code Ann. § 40-302(d) (1967).

Jenks signaled respondent to stop the automobile, which respondent did, and all three of the occupants emerged from the car. At that point, Jenks informed respondent that he was under arrest for "operating after revocation and obtaining a permit by misrepresentation." It was assumed by the Court of Appeals, and is conceded by the respondent here, that Jenks had

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probable cause to arrest respondent, and that he effected a full-custody arrest.1

In accordance with procedures prescribed in police department instructions,2 Jenks then began to search

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respondent. He explained at a subsequent [94 S.Ct. 471] hearing that he was "face-to-face" with the respondent, and

placed [his] hands on [the respondent], my right hand to his

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left breast like this (demonstrating) and proceeded to pat him down thus [with the right hand].

During this pat-down, Jenks felt an object in the left breast pocket of the heavy coat respondent was wearing, but testified that he "couldn't tell what it was," and also that he "couldn't actually tell the size of it." Jenks then reached into the pocket and pulled out the object, which turned out to be a "crumpled up cigarette package." Jenks testified that, at this point he still did not know what was in the package:

As I felt the package, I could feel objects in the package, but I couldn't tell what they were. . . . I knew they weren't cigarettes.

The officer then opened the cigarette pack and found 14 gelatin capsules of white powder which he thought to be, and which later analysis proved to be, heroin. Jenks then continued his search of respondent to completion, feeling around his waist and trouser legs, and examining the remaining pockets. The heroin seized from the respondent was admitted into evidence at the trial which resulted in his conviction in the District Court.

The opinion for the plurality judges of the Court of Appeals, written by Judge Wright, the concurring opinion of Chief Judge Bazelon, and the dissenting opinion of Judge Wilkey, concurred in by three judges, gave careful and comprehensive treatment to the authority of a police officer to search the person of one

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who has been validly arrested and taken into custody. We conclude that the search conducted by Jenks in this case did not offend the limits imposed by the Fourth Amendment, and we therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


It is well settled that a search incident to a lawful arrest is a traditional exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. This general exception has historically been formulated into two distinct propositions. The first is that a search may be made of the person of the arrestee by virtue of the lawful arrest. The second is that a search may be made of the area within the control of the arrestee.

Examination of this Court's decisions shows that these two propositions have been treated quite differently. The validity of the search of a person incident to a lawful arrest has been regarded as settled from its first enunciation, and has remained virtually unchallenged until the present case. The validity of the second proposition, while likewise conceded in principle, has been subject to differing interpretations as to the extent of the area which may be searched.

Because the rule requiring exclusion of evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment was first enunciated in Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914), it is understandable that virtually all of this Court's search and seizure law has been [94 S.Ct. 472] developed since that time. In Weeks, the Court made clear its recognition of the validity of a search incident to a lawful arrest:

What then is the present case? Before answering that inquiry specifically, it may be well by a process of exclusion to state what it is not. It is not an assertion of the right on the part of the

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Government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested to discover and seize the fruits or evidences of crime. This right has been uniformly maintained in many cases. 1 Bishop on Criminal Procedure, § 211; Wharton, Crim.Plead. and Practice, 8th ed., § 60; Dillon v. O'Brien and Davis, 16 Cox C.C. 245.

Id. at 392.

Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20 (1925), decided 11 years after Weeks, repeats the categorical recognition of the validity of a search incident to lawful arrest:

The right without a search warrant contemporaneously to search persons lawfully arrested while committing crime and to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime as its fruits or as the means by which it was committed, as well as weapons and other things to effect an escape from custody, is not to be doubted.

Id. at 30.

Throughout the series of cases in which the Court has addressed the second proposition relating to a search incident to a lawful arrest -- the permissible area beyond the person of the arrestee which such a search may cover -- no doubt has been expressed as to the unqualified authority of the arresting authority to search the person of the arrestee. E.g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S....

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