New York v. Burger

Decision Date19 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-80,86-80
Citation107 S.Ct. 2636,482 U.S. 691,96 L.Ed.2d 601
PartiesNEW YORK, Petitioner v. Joseph BURGER
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Respondent junkyard owner's business consists, in part, of dismantling automobiles and selling their parts. Pursuant to a New York statute authorizing warrantless inspections of automobile junkyards, police officers entered his junkyard and asked to see his license and records as to automobiles and vehicle parts in his possession. He replied that he did not have such documents, which are required by the statute. After announcing their intention to conduct an inspection of the junkyard pursuant to the statute, the officers, without objection by respondent, conducted the inspection and discovered stolen vehicles and parts. Respondent, who was charged with possession of stolen property and unregistered operation as a vehicle dismantler, moved in state court to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the inspection, primarily on the ground that the administrative inspection statute was unconstitutional. The court denied the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The New York Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the statute violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.


1. A business owner's expectation of privacy in commercial property is attenuated with respect to commercial property employed in a "closely regulated" industry. Where the owner's privacy interests are weakened and the government interests in regulating particular businesses are concomitantly heightened, a warrantless inspection of commercial premises, if it meets certain criteria, is reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 699-703.

2. Searches made pursuant to the New York statute fall within the exception to the warrant requirement for administrative inspections of "closely regulated" businesses. Pp. 703-712.

(a) The nature of the statute establishes that the operation of a junkyard, part of which is devoted to vehicle dismantling, is a "closely regulated" business. Although the duration of a particular regulatory scheme has some relevancy, and New York's scheme regulating vehicle dismantlers can be said to be of fairly recent vintage, nevertheless, because widespread use of the automobile is relatively new, automobile junkyards and vehicle dismantlers have not been in existence very long and thus do not have an ancient history of government oversight. Moreover, the automobile-junkyard business is simply a new branch of an industry—general junkyards and secondhand shops—that has existed, and has been closely regulated in New York, for many years. Pp. 703-707.

(b) New York's regulatory scheme satisfies the criteria necessary to make reasonable the warrantless inspections conducted pursuant to the inspection statute. First, the State has a substantial interest in regulating the vehicle-dismantling and automobile-junkyard industry because motor vehicle theft has increased in the State and because the problem of theft is associated with such industry. Second, regulation of the industry reasonably serves the State's substantial interest in eradicating automobile theft, and warrantless administrative inspections pursuant to the statute are necessary to further the regulatory scheme. Third, the statute provides a constitutionally adequate substitute for a warrant. It informs a business operator that regular inspections will be made, and also sets forth the scope of the inspection, notifying him as to how to comply with the statute and as to who is authorized to conduct an inspection. Moreover, the "time, place, and scope" of the inspection is limited to impose appropriate restraints upon the inspecting officers' discretion. Pp. 708-712.

3. The New York inspection statute does not violate the Fourth Amendment on the ground that it was designed simply to give the police an expedient means of enforcing penal sanctions for possession of stolen property. A State can address a major social problem both by way of an administrative scheme—setting forth rules to guide an operator's conduct of its business and allowing government officials to ensure that such rules are followed—and through penal sanctions. Cf. United States v. Biswell, 406 U.S. 311, 92 S.Ct. 1593, 32 L.Ed.2d 87. New York's statute was designed to contribute to the regulatory goals of ensuring that vehicle dismantlers are legitimate businesspersons and that stolen vehicles and vehicle parts passing through automobile junkyards can be identified. Nor is the administrative scheme unconstitutional simply because, in the course of enforcing it, an inspecting officer may discover evidence of crimes, besides violations of the scheme itself. Moreover, there is no constitutional significance in the fact that police officers, rather than "administrative" agents, are permitted to conduct the administrative inspection. So long as a regulatory scheme is properly administrative, it is not rendered illegal by the fact that the inspecting officer has the power to arrest individuals for violations other than those created by the scheme itself. Pp. 712-718.

67 N.Y.2d 338, 502 N.Y.S.2d 702, 493 N.E.2d 926 (1986) reversed and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in all but Part III of which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 718.

Elizabeth Holtzman, Dist. Atty., Brooklyn, N.Y., for petitioner.

Stephen R. Mahler, Kew Gardens, N.Y., for respondent.

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether the warrantless search of an automobile junkyard, conducted pursuant to a statute authorizing such a search, falls within the exception to the warrant requirement for administrative inspections of pervasively regulated industries. The case also presents the question whether an otherwise proper administrative inspection is unconstitutional because the ultimate purpose of the regulatory statute pursuant to which the search is done—the deterrence of criminal behavior—is the same as that of penal laws, with the result that the inspection may disclose violations not only of the regulatory statute but also of the penal statutes.


Respondent Joseph Burger is the owner of a junkyard in Brooklyn, N.Y. His business consists, in part, of the dismantling of automobiles and the selling of their parts. His junkyard is an open lot with no buildings. A high metal fence surrounds it, wherein are located, among other things, vehicles and parts of vehicles. At approximately noon on November 17, 1982, Officer Joseph Vega and four other plainclothes officers, all members of the Auto Crimes Division of the New York City Police Department, entered re- spondent's junkyard to conduct an inspection pursuant to N.Y.Veh. & Traf.Law § 415-a5 (McKinney 1986).1 Tr. 6. On any given day, the Division conducts from 5 to 10 inspections of vehicle dismantlers, automobile junkyards, and related businesses.2 Id., at 26.

Upon entering the junkyard, the officers asked to see Burger's license 3 and his "police book"—the record of the auto- mobiles and vehicle parts in his possession. Burger replied that he had neither a license nor a police book.4 The officers then announced their intention to conduct a § 415-a5 inspection. Burger did not object. Tr. 6, 47. In accordance with their practice, the officers copied down the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs) of several vehicles and parts of vehicles that were in the junkyard. Id., at 7, 20, 44, 46. After checking these numbers against a police computer, the officers determined that respondent was in possession of stolen vehicles and parts.5 Accordingly, Burger was arrested and charged with five counts of possession of stolen property 6 and one count of unregistered operation as a vehicle dismantler, in violation of § 415-a1.

In the Kings County Supreme Court, Burger moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the inspection, primarily on the ground that § 415-a5 was unconstitutional. After a hearing, the court denied the motion. It reasoned that the junkyard business was a "pervasively regulated" industry in which warrantless administrative inspections were appropriate; that the statute was properly limited in "time, place and scope," and that, once the officers had reasonable cause to believe that certain vehicles and parts were stolen, they could arrest Burger and seize the property without a warrant. App. to Pet. for Cert. 18a-19a. When respondent moved for reconsideration in light of a recent decision of the Appellate Division, People v. Pace, 101 App.Div.2d 336, 475 N.Y.S.2d 443 (1984), aff'd, 65 N.Y.2d 684, 491 N.Y.S.2d 618, 481 N.E.2d 250 (1985),7 the court granted reargument. Upon re- consideration, the court distinguished the situation in Pace from that in the instant case. It observed that the Appellate Division in Pace did not apply § 415-a5 to the search in question, 125 Misc.2d 709, 711, 479 N.Y.S.2d 936, 938 (1984), and that, in any event, the police officers in that case were not conducting an administrative inspection, but were acting on the basis of recently discovered evidence that criminal activity was taking place at the automobile salvage yard. Id., at 712-714, 479 N.Y.S.2d, at 939-940. The court therefore reaffirmed its earlier determination in the instant case that § 415-a5 was constitutional.8 For the same reasons, the Appellate Division affirmed. 112 App.Div.2d 1046, 493 N.Y.S.2d 34 (1985).

The New York Court of Appeals, however, reversed. 67 N.Y.2d 338, 502 N.Y.S.2d 702, 493 N.E.2d 926 (1986). In its view, § 415-a5 violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.9 According to the Court of Ap-peals " [t]he fundamental defect [of § 415-a5] . . . is that [it] authorize[s] searches...

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