526 U.S. 559 (1999), 98-223, Florida v. White

Docket Nº:Case No. 98-223
Citation:526 U.S. 559, 119 S.Ct. 1555, 143 L.Ed.2d 748, 67 U.S.L.W. 3682, 67 U.S.L.W. 4311
Party Name:FLORIDA v. WHITE
Case Date:May 17, 1999
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 559

526 U.S. 559 (1999)

119 S.Ct. 1555, 143 L.Ed.2d 748, 67 U.S.L.W. 3682, 67 U.S.L.W. 4311

FLORIDA

v.

WHITE

Case No. 98-223

United States Supreme Court

May 17, 1999

Argued March 23, 1999

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA

Syllabus

Two months after officers observed respondent using his car to deliver cocaine, he was arrested at his workplace on unrelated charges. At that time, the arresting officers seized his car without securing a warrant because they believed that it was subject to forfeiture under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act (Act). During a subsequent inventory search, the police discovered cocaine in the car. Respondent was then charged with a state drug violation. At his trial on the drug charge, he moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the search, arguing that the car's warrantless seizure violated the Fourth Amendment, thereby making the cocaine the "fruit of the poisonous tree." After the jury returned a guilty verdict, the court denied the motion, and the Florida First District Court of Appeal affirmed. It also certified to the Florida Supreme Court the question whether, absent exigent circumstances, a warrantless seizure of an automobile under the Act violated the Fourth Amendment. The latter court answered the question in the affirmative, quashed the lower court opinion, and remanded.

Held:

The Fourth Amendment does not require the police to obtain a warrant before seizing an automobile from a public place when they have probable cause to believe that it is forfeitable contraband. In deciding whether a challenged governmental action violates the Amendment, this Court inquires whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search and seizure when the Amendment was framed. See, e. g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 149. This Court has held that when federal officers have probable cause to believe that an automobile contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment does not require them to obtain a warrant prior to searching the car for and seizing the contraband. Id., at 150-151. Although the police here lacked probable cause to believe that respondent's car contained contraband, they had probable cause to believe that the vehicle itself was contraband under Florida law. A recognition of the need to seize readily movable contraband before it is spirited away undoubtedly underlies the early federal laws relied upon in Carroll. This need is equally weighty when the automobile, as opposed to its contents, is the contraband that the police seek to secure. In addition, this Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has consistently accorded officers greater latitude in exercising their duties in public places. Here, because the police seized respondent's

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vehicle from a public area, the warrantless seizure is virtually indistinguishable from the seizure upheld in G. M. Leasing Corp. v. United States, 429 U.S. 338, 351. Pp. 563-566.

710 So.2d 949, reversed and remanded.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Souter, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Breyer, J., joined, post, p. 566. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined, post, p. 567.

Carolyn Snurkowski, Assistant Deputy Attorney General of Florida, argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs were Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General, and Daniel A. David, Assistant Attorney General.

Malcolm L. Stewart argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Assistant Attorney General Robinson, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and Kathleen A. Felton.

David P. Gauldin argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were David A. Davis and Michael J. Minerva.[*]

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Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act provides that certain forms of contraband, including motor vehicles used in violation of the Act's provisions, may be seized and potentially forfeited. In this case, we must decide whether the Fourth Amendment requires the police to obtain a warrant before seizing an automobile from a public place when they have probable cause to believe that it is forfeitable contraband. We hold that it does not.

I

On three occasions in July and August 1993, police officers observed respondent Tyvessel Tyvorus White using his car to deliver cocaine, and thereby developed probable cause to believe that his car was subject to forfeiture under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act (Act), Fla. Stat. § 932.701 et seq. (1997).[1] Several months later, the police arrested respondent at his place of employment on charges unrelated to the drug transactions observed in July and August 1993. At the same time, the arresting officers, without securing a warrant, seized respondent's automobile in accordance with the provisions of the Act. See § 932.703(2)(a).[2] They seized the

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vehicle solely because they believed that it was forfeitable under the Act. During a subsequent inventory search, the police found two pieces of crack cocaine in the ashtray. Based on the discovery of the cocaine, respondent was charged with possession of a controlled substance in violation of Florida law.

At his trial on the possession charge, respondent filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the inventory search. He argued that the warrantless seizure of his car violated the Fourth Amendment, thereby making the cocaine the "fruit of the poisonous tree." The trial court initially reserved ruling on respondent's motion, but later denied it after the jury returned a guilty verdict. On appeal, the Florida First District Court of Appeal affirmed. 680 So.2d 550 (1996). Adopting the position of a majority of state and federal courts to have considered the question, the court rejected respondent's argument that the Fourth Amendment required the police to secure a warrant prior to seizing his vehicle. Id., at 554. Because the Florida Supreme Court and this Court had not directly addressed the issue, the court certified to the Florida Supreme Court the question whether, absent exigent circumstances, the warrantless seizure of an automobile under the Act violated the Fourth Amendment. Id., at 555.

In a divided opinion, the Florida Supreme Court answered the certified question in the affirmative, quashed the First District Court of Appeal's opinion, and remanded. 710 So.2d 949, 955 (1998). The majority of the court concluded that, absent exigent circumstances, the Fourth Amendment requires the police to obtain a warrant prior to seizing property

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that has been used in violation of the Act. Ibid. According to the court, the fact that the police develop probable cause to believe that such a violation occurred does not, standing alone, justify a warrantless seizure. The court expressly rejected the holding of the Eleventh Circuit, see United States v. Valdes, 876 F.2d 1554 (1989), and the majority of other Federal Circuits to have addressed the same issue in the context of the federal civil forfeiture law, 21 U.S.C. § 881, which is similar to Florida's. See United States v. Decker, 19 F.3d 287 (CA6 1994) (per curiam); United States v. Pace, 898 F.2d 1218, 1241 (CA7 1990); United States v. One 1978 Mercedes Benz, 711 F.2d 1297 (CA5 1983); United States v. Kemp, 690 F.2d 397 (CA4 1982); United States v. Bush, 647 F.2d 357 (CA3 1981). But see United States v. Dixon, 1 F.3d 1080 (CA10 1993); United States v. Lasanta, 978 F.2d 1300 (CA2 1992); United States v. Linn, 880 F.2d 209 (CA9 1989). We granted certiorari, 525 U.S. 1000 (1998), and now reverse.

II

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," and further provides that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." U.S. Const., Amdt. 4. In deciding whether a challenged governmental action violates the Amendment, we have taken care to inquire whether the action was regarded as an unlawful search and seizure when the Amendment was framed. See Wyoming v. Houghton, ante, at 299; Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 149 (1925) ("The Fourth Amendment is to be construed in light of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when it was adopted, and in a manner which will conserve public interests as well as the interests and rights of individual citizens").

In Carroll, we held that when federal officers have probable cause to believe that an automobile contains contraband,

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the Fourth Amendment does not require them to obtain a warrant prior to searching the car for and seizing the contraband. Our holding was rooted in federal law enforcement practice at the time of the adoption of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, we looked to laws of the First, Second, and Fourth Congresses that authorized federal officers to conduct warrantless searches of ships and to seize concealed goods subject to duties. Id., at 150-151 (citing Act of July 31, 1789, §§ 24, 29, 1 Stat. 43; Act of Aug. 4, 1790, § 50, 1 Stat. 170; Act of Feb. 18, 1793, § 27, 1 Stat. 315; Act of Mar. 2, 1799, §§ 68-70, 1 Stat. 677, 678). These enactments led us to conclude that "contemporaneously with the adoption of the Fourth Amendment," Congress distinguished "the necessity for a search warrant between goods subject to forfeiture, when concealed in a dwelling house or similar place, and like goods in course of transportation and concealed in a movable vessel where they readily could be put out of reach of a search warrant." 267 U.S., at 151.

The Florida Supreme Court recognized that under Carroll, the police could search respondent's car, without obtaining a warrant, if they had probable cause to believe that it contained contraband....

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