431 U.S. 606 (1977), 76-167, United States v. Ramsey

Docket Nº:No. 76-167
Citation:431 U.S. 606, 97 S.Ct. 1972, 52 L.Ed.2d 617
Party Name:United States v. Ramsey
Case Date:June 06, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

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431 U.S. 606 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 1972, 52 L.Ed.2d 617

United States



No. 76-167

United States Supreme Court

June 6, 1977

Argued March 30, 1977




Title 19 U.S.C. § 482 and implementing postal regulations authorize customs officials to inspect incoming international mail when they have a "reasonable cause to suspect" that the mail contains illegally imported merchandise, although the regulations prohibit the reading of correspondence absent a search warrant. Acting pursuant to the statute and regulations, a customs inspector, based on the facts that certain incoming letter-sized airmail envelopes were from Thailand, a known source of narcotics, and were bulky and much heavier than a normal airmail letter, opened the envelopes for inspection at the General Post Office in New York City, considered a "border" for border search purposes, and ultimately the envelopes were found to contain heroin. Respondents were subsequently indicted for and convicted of narcotics offenses, the District Court having denied their motion to suppress the heroin. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement applicable to persons, baggage, and mailed packages did not apply to the opening of international mail, and that the Constitution requires that, before such mail is opened, a showing of probable cause must be made and a warrant obtained.


1. Under the circumstances, the customs inspector had "reasonable cause to suspect" that there was merchandise or contraband in the envelopes, and therefore the [97 S.Ct. 1974] search was plainly authorized by the statute. Pp. 611-616.

2. The Fourth Amendment does not interdict the actions taken by the inspector in opening and searching the envelopes. Pp. 616-625.

(a) Boarder searches without probable cause and without a warrant are nonetheless "reasonable" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 616-619.

(b) The inclusion of international mail within the border search exception does not represent any "extension" of that exception. The exception is grounded in the recognized right of the sovereign to control, subject to substantive limitations imposed by the Constitution, who and what may enter the country, and no different constitutional standards should apply simply because the envelopes were mailed, not carried -- the

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critical fact being that the envelopes cross the border and enter the country, not that they are brought in by one mode of transportation, rather than another. It is their entry into the country from without it that makes a resulting search "reasonable." Pp. 619-621.

(c) The border search exception is not based on the doctrine of "exigent circumstances," but is a longstanding, historically recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment's general principle that a warrant be obtained. Pp. 621-622.

(d) The opening of international mail under the guidelines of the statute only when the customs official has reason to believe the mail contains other than correspondence, while the reading of any correspondence inside the envelopes is forbidden by the regulations, does not impermissibly chill the exercise of free speech under the First Amendment, and any "chill" that might exist under such circumstances is not only "minimal" but is also wholly subjective. Pp. 623-624.

176 U.S.App.D.C. 67, 538 F.2d 415, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, POWELL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 625. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 625

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Customs officials, acting with "reasonable cause to suspect" a violation of customs laws, opened for inspection incoming international letter-class mail without first obtaining a search warrant. A divided Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia

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Circuit held, contrary to every other Court of Appeals which has considered the matter,1 that the Fourth Amendment forbade the opening of such mail without probable cause and a search warrant. 176 U.S.App.D.C. 67, 538 F.2d 415. We granted the Government's petition for certiorari to resolve this Circuit conflict. 429 U.S. 815. We now reverse.


Charles W. Ramsey and James W. Kelly jointly commenced a heroin-by-mail enterprise [97 S.Ct. 1975] in the Washington, D.C. area. The process involved their procuring of heroin, which was mailed in letters from Bangkok, Thailand, and sent to various locations in the District of Columbia area for collection. Two of their suppliers, Sylvia Bailey and William Ward, who were located in West Germany, were engaged in international narcotics trafficking during the latter part of 1973 and the early part of 1974. West German agents, pursuant to court-authorized electronic surveillance, intercepted several trans-Atlantic conversations between Bailey and Ramsey during which their narcotics operation was discussed. By late January, 1974, Bailey and Ward had gone to Thailand. Thai

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officials, alerted to their presence by West German authorities, placed them under surveillance. Ward was observed mailing letter-sized envelopes in six different mail boxes; five of these envelopes were recovered; and one of the addresses in Washington, D.C. was later linked to respondents. Bailey and Ward were arrested by Thai officials on February 2, 1974; among the items seized were eleven heroin-filled envelopes addressed to the Washington, D.C. area, and later connected with respondents.

Two days after this arrest of Bailey and Ward, Inspector George Kallnischkies, a United States customs officer in New York City, without any knowledge of the foregoing events, inspecting a sack of incoming international mail from Thailand, spotted eight envelopes that were bulky and which he believed might contain merchandise.2 The envelopes, all of which appeared to him to have been typed on the same typewriter, were addressed to four different locations in the Washington, D.C. area. Inspector Kallnischkies, based on the fact that the letters were from Thailand, a known source of narcotics, and were "rather bulky," suspected that the envelopes might contain merchandise or contraband, rather than correspondence. He took the letters to an examining area in the post office, and felt one of the letters: it "felt like there was something in there, in the envelope. It was not just plain paper that the envelope is supposed to contain." He weighed one of the envelopes, and found it weighed 42 grams, some three to six times the normal weight of an airmail letter. Inspector Kallnischkies then opened that envelope:3

In there I saw some cardboard and between the cardboard, if I recall, there was a plastic bag containing a

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white powdered substance, which, based on experience, I knew from Thailand would be heroin.

I went ahead and removed a sample. Gave it a field test, a Marquis Reagent field test, and I had a positive reaction for heroin.

App. 32. He proceeded to open the other seven envelopes, which, "in a lot of ways, were identical"; examination revealed that at least the contents were in fact identical: each contained heroin.

The envelopes were then sent to Washington in a locked pouch, where agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, after obtaining a search warrant, opened the envelopes again and removed most of the heroin.4 The envelopes were then resealed, and six of them were delivered under surveillance. [97 S.Ct. 1976] After Kelly collected the envelopes from the three different addressees, rendezvoused with Ramsey, and gave Ramsey a brown paper bag, federal agents arrested both of them. The bag contained the six envelopes with heroin, $1,100 in cash, and "cutting" material for the heroin. The next day, in executing a search upon warrant of Ramsey's residence, agents recovered, inter alia, two pistols.

Ramsey and Kelly were indicted, along with Bailey and Ward, in a 17-count indictment.5 Respondents moved to

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suppress the heroin and the two pistols.6 The District Court denied the motions, and, after a bench trial on the stipulated record, respondents were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for what is in effect a term of 10 to 30 years. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one judge dissenting, reversed the convictions, holding that the "border search exception to the warrant requirement" applicable to persons, baggage, and mailed packages did not apply to the routine opening of international letter mail, and held that the Constitution requires that "before international letter mail is opened, a showing of probable cause be made to and a warrant secured from a neutral magistrate." 176 U.S.App.D.C. at 73, 538 F.2d at 421.7


Congress and the applicable postal regulations authorized the actions undertaken in this case. Title 19 U.S.C. § 482, a recodification of Rev.Stat. § 3061, and derived from § 3 of the Act of July 18, 1866, 14 Stat. 178, explicitly deals with the search of an "envelope":

Any of the officers or persons authorized to board or search vessels may . . . search any trunk or envelope, wherever found, in which he may have a reasonable cause to suspect there is merchandise which was imported contrary to law. . . .

This provision authorizes customs officials to inspect, under

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the circumstances therein stated, incoming international mail.8 The "reasonable cause to suspect" test adopted [97 S.Ct. 1977] by the statute is, we think, a practical test which imposes a less stringent

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requirement than that of "probable cause" imposed by the Fourth Amendment as a requirement for the issuance of warrants. ...

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