447 U.S. 649 (1980), 79-67, Walter v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 79-67
Citation:447 U.S. 649, 100 S.Ct. 2395, 65 L.Ed.2d 410
Party Name:Walter v. United States
Case Date:June 20, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 649

447 U.S. 649 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 2395, 65 L.Ed.2d 410

Walter

v.

United States

No. 79-67

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 1980

Argued February 26, 1980

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

When an interstate shipment of several securely sealed packages containing 8-millimeter films depicting homosexual activities was mistakenly delivered by a private carrier to a third party rather than to the consignee, employees of the third party opened each of the packages, finding individual film boxes, on one side of which were suggestive drawings, and on the other were explicit descriptions of the contents. One employee opened one or two of the boxes and attempted without success to view portions of the film by holding it up to the light. After the Federal Bureau of Investigation was notified and picked up the packages, agents viewed the films with a projector without first making any effort to obtain a warrant or to communicate with the consignor or the consignee of the shipment. Thereafter, petitioners were indicted on federal obscenity charges relating to the interstate transportation of certain of the films in the shipment, a motion to suppress and return the films was denied, and petitioners were convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and rehearing was denied.

Held: The judgments are reversed. Pp. 653-660; 660-662.

Certiorari dismissed in part; 592 F.2d 788 and 597 F.2d 63, reversed.

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, joined by MR. JUSTICE STEWART, concluded that, even though the nature of the contents of the films was indicated by descriptive material on their individual containers, the Government's unauthorized screening of the films constituted an unreasonable invasion of their owner's constitutionally protected interest in privacy. It was a search; there was no warrant; the owner had not consented; and there were no exigent circumstances. Cf. Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 569 (STEWART, J., concurring in result). Pp. 653-660.

(a) The fact that FBI agents were lawfully in possession of the boxes of film did not give them authority to search their contents. An officer's authority to possess a package is distinct from his authority to examine its contents, and when the contents of the package are books or other materials arguably protected by the First Amendment, and the basis

Page 650

for the seizure is disapproval of the message contained therein, it is especially important that the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement be scrupulously observed. Pp. 654-655.

(b) Nor does the fact that the packages and one or more of the boxes had been opened by a private party before they were acquired by the FBI excuse the failure to obtain a search warrant. Even though some circumstances -- for example, if the results of the private search are in plain view when materials are turned over to the Government -- may justify the Government's reexamination of the materials, the Government may not exceed the scope of the private search unless it has the right to make an independent search. Here, the private party had not actually viewed the films, and prior to the Government screening one could only draw inferences about what was on the films. Thus, the projection of the films was a significant expansion of the previous search by a private party, and therefore must be characterized as a separate search, which was not supported by any exigency or by a warrant even though one could have easily been obtained. Pp. 656-657.

(c) The fact that the cartons of film boxes, which cartons were securely wrapped and had no markings indicating the character of their contents, were unexpectedly opened by a third party before the shipment was delivered to its intended consignee, thus uncovering the descriptive labels on the film boxes, does not alter the consignor's legitimate expectation of privacy in the films. The private search merely frustrated that expectation in part, and did not strip the remaining unfrustrated portion of that expectation of all Fourth Amendment protection. Pp. 658-659.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, joined by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, concurring in part and in the judgment, agreed that the Government's warrantless projection of the films constituted a search that infringed petitioners' Fourth Amendment interests even though the Government had acquired the films from a private party, but disagreed with the suggestion that it is an open question whether the Government's projection of the films would have infringed any Fourth Amendment interest if private parties had projected the films before turning them over to the Government. The notion that private searches insulate from Fourth Amendment scrutiny subsequent governmental searches of the same or lesser scope is inconsistent with traditional Fourth Amendment principles, and even if the private parties in this action had projected the films before turning them over to the Government, the Government still would have been required to obtain a warrant for its subsequent screening of them. Pp. 660-662

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL concurred in the judgment.

Page 651

STEVENS, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which STEWART, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 660. MARSHALL, J., concurred in the judgment. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 662.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MR. JUSTICE STEWART joined.

Having lawfully acquired possession of a dozen cartons of motion pictures, law enforcement officers viewed several reels of 8-millimeter film on a Government projector. Labels on the individual film boxes indicated that they contained obscene pictures. The question is whether the Fourth Amendment required the agents to obtain a warrant before they screened the films.

Only a few of the bizarre facts need be recounted. On September 25, 1975, 12 large, securely sealed packages containing 871 boxes of 8-millimeter film depicting homosexual activities were shipped by private carrier from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Atlanta, Ga. The shipment was addressed to "Leggs, Inc.,"1 but was mistakenly delivered to a substation in the suburbs of Atlanta, where "L'Eggs Products, Inc.," regularly received deliveries. Employees of the latter company opened

Page 652

each of the packages, finding the individual boxes of film. They examined the boxes, on one side of which were suggestive drawings, and on the other were explicit' descriptions of the contents. One employee opened one or two of the boxes, and attempted without success to view portions of the film by holding it up to the light.2 Shortly thereafter, they called a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who picked up the packages on October 1, 1975.

Thereafter, without making any effort to obtain a warrant or to communicate with the consignor or the consignee of the shipment, FBI agents viewed the films with a projector. The record does not indicate exactly when they viewed the films, but at least one of them was not screened until more than two months after the FBI had taken possession of the shipment.3

On April 6, 1977, petitioners were indicted on obscenity charges relating to the interstate transportation of 5 of the 871 films in the shipment. A motion to suppress and return the films was denied, and petitioners were convicted on multiple counts of violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 371, 1462, and 1465. Over Judge Wisdom's dissent, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, 592 F.2d 788, and rehearing was denied, 597 F.2d 63 (1979). We granted certiorari, 444 U.S. 914,4 and now reverse.

Page 653

In his concurrence in Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 569, MR. JUSTICE STEWART expressed the opinion that the warrantless projection of motion picture films was an unconstitutional invasion of the privacy of the owner of the films. After noting that the agents in that case were [100 S.Ct. 2400] lawfully present in the defendant's home pursuant to a warrant to search for wagering paraphernalia, MR. JUSTICE STEWART wrote:

This is not a case where agents, in the course of a lawful search, came upon contraband, criminal activity, or criminal evidence in plain view. For the record makes clear that the contents of the films could not be determined by mere inspection. . . . After finding them, the agents spent some 50 minutes exhibiting them by means of the appellant's projector in another upstairs room. Only then did the agents return downstairs and arrest the appellant.

Even in the much-criticized case of United States v. Rabinowitz, 339 U.S. 56, the Court emphasized that "exploratory searches . . . cannot be undertaken by officers with or without a warrant." Id. at 62. This record presents a bald violation of that basic constitutional rule. To condone what happened here is to invite a government official to use a seemingly precise and legal warrant only as a ticket to get into a man's home, and, once inside, to launch forth upon unconfined searches and indiscriminate seizures as if armed with all the unbridled and illegal power of a general warrant.

Because the films were seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, they were inadmissible

Page 654

in evidence at the appellant's trial.

Id. at 571-572 (footnote omitted).

Even though the cases before us involve an invasion of the privacy of the home, and notwithstanding that the nature of the contents of these films was indicated by descriptive material on their individual containers, we are nevertheless persuaded that the unauthorized exhibition of the films constituted an unreasonable invasion of their owner's constitutionally protected interest in privacy. It was a search; there was no warrant; the owner...

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