436 U.S. 547 (1978), 76-1484, Zurcher v. Stanford Daily

Docket Nº:No. 76-1484
Citation:436 U.S. 547, 98 S.Ct. 1970, 56 L.Ed.2d 525
Party Name:Zurcher v. Stanford Daily
Case Date:May 31, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 547

436 U.S. 547 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 1970, 56 L.Ed.2d 525



Stanford Daily

No. 76-1484

United States Supreme Court

May 31, 1978

Argued January 17, 1978




Respondents, a student newspaper that had published articles and photographs of a clash between demonstrators and police at a hospital, and staff members, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against, among others, petitioners, law enforcement and district attorney personnel, claiming that a search pursuant to a warrant issued on a judge's finding of probable cause that the newspaper (which was not involved in the unlawful acts) possessed photographs and negatives revealing the identities of demonstrators who had assaulted police officers at the hospital had deprived respondents of their constitutional rights. The District Court granted declaratory relief, holding that the Fourth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth forbade the issuance of a warrant to search for materials in possession of one not suspected of crime unless there is probable cause, based on facts presented in a sworn affidavit, to believe that a subpoena duces tecum would be impracticable. Failure to honor the subpoena would not, alone, justify issuance of a warrant; it would also have to appear that the possessor of the objects sought would disregard a court order not to remove or destroy them. The court also held that, where the innocent object of the search is a newspaper, First Amendment interests make the search constitutionally permissible

only in the rare circumstance where there is a clear showing that (1) important materials will be destroyed or removed from the jurisdiction; and (2) a restraining order would be futile.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. A State is not prevented by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments from issuing a warrant to search for evidence simply because the owner or possessor of the place to be searched is not reasonably suspected of criminal involvement. The critical element in a reasonable search is not that the property owner is suspected of crime, but that there is reasonable cause to believe that the "things" to be searched for and seized are located on the property to which entry is sought. Pp. 553-560.

2. The District Court's new rule denying search warrants against third

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parties and insisting on subpoenas would undermine law enforcement efforts, since search warrants are often used early in an investigation before all the perpetrators of a crime have been identified, and the seemingly blameless third party may be implicated. The delay in employing a subpoena duces tecum could easily result in disappearance of the evidence. Nor would the cause of privacy be served, since search warrants are more difficult to obtain than subpoenas. Pp. 560-563.

3. Properly administered, the preconditions for a search warrant (probable cause, specificity with respect to the place to be searched and the things to be seized, and overall reasonableness), which must be applied with particular exactitude when First Amendment interests would be endangered by the search, are adequate safeguards against the interference with the press' ability to gather, analyze, and disseminate news that respondents claim would ensue from use of warrants for third-party searches of newspaper offices. Pp. 563-567.

550 F.2d 464, 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. 568. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 570. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 577. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The terms of the Fourth Amendment, applicable to the States by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, are familiar:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

As heretofore understood, the Amendment has not been a barrier to warrants to search property on which there is

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probable cause tax believe that fruits, instrumentalities, or evidence of crime is located, whether or not the owner or possessor of the premises to be searched is himself reasonably suspected of complicity in the crime being investigated. We are now asked to reconstrue the Fourth Amendment and to hold for the first time that, when the place to be searched is occupied by a person not then a suspect, a warrant to search for criminal objects and evidence reasonably believed to be located there should not issue except in the most unusual circumstances, and that, except in such circumstances, a subpoena duces tecum must be relied upon to recover the objects or evidence sought.


Late in the day on Friday, April 9, 1971, officers of the Palo Alto Police Department and of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department responded to a call from the director of the Stanford University Hospital requesting the removal of a large group of demonstrators who had seized the hospital's [98 S.Ct. 1974] administrative offices and occupied them since the previous afternoon. After several futile efforts to persuade the demonstrators to leave peacefully, more drastic measures were employed. The demonstrators had barricaded the doors at both ends of a hall adjacent to the administrative offices. The police chose to force their way in at the west end of the corridor. As they did so, a group of demonstrators emerged through the doors at the east end and, armed with sticks and clubs, attacked the group of nine police officers stationed there. One officer was knocked to the floor and struck repeatedly on the head; another suffered a broken shoulder. All nine were injured.1 There were no police photographers at the east doors, and most bystanders and reporters were on the west side. The officers themselves were able to identify only two of their

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assailants, but one of them did see at least one person photographing the assault at the east doors.

On Sunday, April 11, a special edition of the Stanford Daily (Daily), a student newspaper published at Stanford University, carried articles and photographs devoted to the hospital protest and the violent clash between demonstrators and police. The photographs carried the byline of a Daily staff member and indicated that he had been at the east end of the hospital hallway where he could have photographed the assault on the nine officers. The next day, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office secured a warrant from the Municipal Court for an immediate search of the Daily's offices for negatives, film, and pictures showing the events and occurrences at the hospital on the evening of April 9. The warrant issued on a finding of

just, probable and reasonable cause for believing that: Negatives and photographs and films, evidence material and relevant to the identity of the perpetrators of felonies, to-wit, Battery on a Peace Officer, and Assault with Deadly Weapon, will be located [on the premises of the Daily].

App. 31-32. The warrant affidavit contained no allegation or indication that members of the Daily staff were in any way involved in unlawful acts at the hospital.

The search pursuant to the warrant was conducted later that day by four police officers, and took place in the presence of some members of the Daily staff. The Daily's photographic laboratories, filing cabinets, desks, and wastepaper baskets were searched. Locked drawers and rooms were not opened. The officers apparently had opportunity to read notes and correspondence during the search; but, contrary to claims of the staff, the officers denied that they had exceeded the limits of the warrant.2 They had not been advised by the staff that the areas they were searching contained confidential materials. The search revealed only the photographs that had already

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been published on April 11, and no materials were removed from the Daily's office.

A month later, the Daily and various members of its staff, respondents here, brought a civil action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the police officers who conducted the search, the chief of police, the district attorney and one of his deputies, and the judge who had issued the warrant. The complaint alleged that the search of the Daily's office had deprived respondents under color of state law of rights secured to them by the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

The District Court denied the request for an injunction but, on respondents' motion for summary judgment, granted declaratory relief. 353 F.Supp. 124 (1972). The court did not question the existence of probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed and to believe that relevant evidence would be found on the Daily's premises. [98 S.Ct. 1975] It held, however, that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments forbade the issuance of a warrant to search for materials in possession of one not suspected of crime unless there is probable cause to believe, based on facts presented in a sworn affidavit, that a subpoena duces tecum would be impracticable. Moreover, the failure to honor a subpoena would not alone justify a...

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