423 U.S. 411 (1976), 74-538, United States v. Watson

Docket Nº:No. 74-538
Citation:423 U.S. 411, 96 S.Ct. 820, 46 L.Ed.2d 598
Party Name:United States v. Watson
Case Date:January 26, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

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423 U.S. 411 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 820, 46 L.Ed.2d 598

United States



No. 74-538

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 26, 1976

Argued October 8, 1975




A postal inspector received from an informant of known reliability a stolen credit card that respondent had given the informant to be used for their mutual advantage, and the inspector was told by the [96 S.Ct. 822] informant that respondent had agreed to furnish additional cards. At the inspector's suggestion, a meeting was arranged between the informant and respondent for a few days later, which took place at a restaurant. Upon a prearranged signal from the informant that respondent had the additional cards, postal officers made a warrantless arrest of respondent, removed him from the restaurant, and gave him Miranda warnings. When a search of respondent's person revealed no cards, a consented search of his nearby car (after respondent had been cautioned that the results could be used against him) revealed two additional cards in the names of other persons. Following an unsuccessful motion to suppress, these cards were used as evidence in respondent's trial, which resulted in his conviction of possessing stolen mail. The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that the Fourth Amendment prohibited use of that evidence because (1) notwithstanding probable cause for respondent's arrest, the arrest was unconstitutional because the postal inspector had failed to secure an arrest warrant though he had time to do so, and (2) based on the totality of the circumstances (including the illegality of the arrest), respondent's consent to the car search was coerced and thus, invalid.


1. The arrest of respondent, having been based on probable cause and made by postal officers acting in strict compliance with the governing statute and regulations, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 414-424.

2. Since the arrest comported with the Fourth Amendment, respondent's consent to the car search was not, contrary to the holding of the Court of Appeals, the product of an illegal arrest, nor were there any other circumstances indicating that respondent's consent was not his own "essentially free and unconstrained

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choice" because his "will ha[d] been . . . overborne and his capacity for self-determination critically impaired," Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 225. Pp. 424 425.

504 F.2d 849, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 425. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 433. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 433. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents questions under the Fourth Amendment as to the legality of a warrantless arrest and of an ensuing search of the arrestee's automobile carried out with his purported consent.


The relevant events began on August 17, 1972, when an informant, one Khoury, telephoned a postal inspector informing him that respondent Watson was in possession of a stolen credit card and had asked Khoury to cooperate in using the card to their mutual advantage. On five to 10 previous occasions Khoury had provided the inspector with reliable information on postal inspection matters, some involving Watson. Later that day

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Khoury delivered the card to the inspector. On learning that Watson had agreed to furnish additional cards, the inspector asked Khoury to arrange to meet with Watson Khoury did so, a meeting being scheduled for August 22.1 Watson canceled that engagement, but at noon on August 23, Khoury met with Watson at a restaurant designated by the latter. Khoury had been instructed that, if Watson had additional stolen credit cards, Khoury was to give a designated signal. The signal was given, the officers closed in, and Watson was forthwith arrested. He was removed from the restaurant to the street, where he was given the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). A search having revealed that Watson had no credit cards on his person, the inspector asked if he could look inside Watson's car, which was standing within view. Watson said, "Go ahead," and repeated these words when the inspector cautioned that "[i]f I find anything, it is going to go against you." Using keys furnished by Watson, the [96 S.Ct. 823] inspector entered the car and found under the floor mat an envelope containing two credit cards in the names of other persons. These cards were the basis for two counts of a four-count indictment charging Watson with possessing stolen mail in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1708.2

Prior to trial, Watson moved to suppress the cards, claiming that his arrest was illegal for want of probable cause and an arrest warrant and that his consent to search the car was involuntary and ineffective because he had not been told that he could withhold consent.

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The motion was denied, and Watson was convicted of illegally possessing the two cards seized from his car.3

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, 504 F.2d 849 (1974), ruling that the admission in evidence of the two credit cards found in the car was prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. In reaching this judgment, the court decided two issues in Watson's favor. First, notwithstanding its agreement with the District Court that Khoury was reliable and that there was probable cause for arresting Watson, the court held the arrest unconstitutional because the postal inspector had failed to secure an arrest warrant, although he concededly had time to do so. Second, based on the totality of the circumstances, one of which was the illegality of the arrest, the court held Watson's consent to search had been coerced, and hence was not a valid ground for the warrantless search of the automobile. We granted certiorari. 420 U.S. 924 (1975).


A major part of the Court of Appeals' opinion was its holding that Watson's warrantless arrest violated the Fourth Amendment. Although it did not expressly do so, it may have intended to overturn the conviction on the independent ground that the two credit cards were the inadmissible fruits of an unconstitutional arrest. Cf. Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975). However that may be, the Court of Appeals treated the illegality of Watson's arrest as an important factor in determining the voluntariness of his consent to search his car. We therefore deal first with the arrest issue.

Contrary to the Court of Appeals' view, Watson's arrest was not invalid because executed without a warrant.

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Title 18 U.S.C. § 3061(a)(3) expressly empowers the Board of Governors of the Postal Service to authorize Postal Service officers and employees "performing duties related to the inspection of postal matters" to

make arrests without warrant for felonies cognizable under the laws of the United States if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing such a felony.

By regulation, 39 CFR § 232.5(a)(3) (1975), and in identical language, the Board of Governors has exercised that power and authorized warrantless arrests. Because there was probable cause in this case to believe that Watson had violated § 1708, the inspector and his subordinates, in arresting Watson, were acting strictly in accordance with the governing statute and regulations. The effect of the judgment of the Court of Appeals was to invalidate the statute as applied in this case and as applied to all the situations where a court fails to find exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless arrest. We reverse that judgment.

Under the Fourth Amendment, the people are to be

secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, . . . and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause. . . .

Section 3061 represents a judgment by Congress that it is not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for postal inspectors to arrest without a warrant provided they have probable cause to do so.4 This was not an

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isolated or quixotic judgment of the legislative branch. Other federal law enforcement officers have been expressly authorized by statute for many year to make felony arrests on probable cause but without a warrant. This is true of United States marshals, 18 U.S.C. § 3053, and of agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 18 U.S.C. § 3052; the Drug Enforcement Administration, 84 Stat. 1273, 21 U.S.C. § 878; the Secret Service, 18 U.S.C. § 3056(a); and the Customs Service, 26 U.S.C. § 7607.5

Because there is a "strong presumption of constitutionality due to an Act of Congress, especially when it turns on what is `reasonable,'"

[o]bviously the Court should be reluctant to decide that a search thus authorized by Congress was unreasonable, and that the Act was therefore unconstitutional.

United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, 585 (1948). Moreover, there is nothing in the Court's prior cases indicating that, under the

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Fourth Amendment, a warrant is required to make a valid arrest for a felony. Indeed, the relevant prior decisions are uniformly to the contrary.

The usual rule is that a police officer may arrest without warrant one believed by the officer upon reasonable cause to have been guilty of a felony. . . .

Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 156 (1925). In Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98 (1959), the Court dealt with an FBI agent's warrantless arrest under 18 U.S.C. § 3052, which authorizes a warrantless arrest where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a felony. The...

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