Preston v. United States, 163

Citation84 S.Ct. 881,376 U.S. 364,11 L.Ed.2d 777
Decision Date23 March 1964
Docket NumberNo. 163,163
PartiesJohn Brenton PRESTON, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Francis M. Shea, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Sidney M. Glazer, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner and three others were convicted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on a charge of conspiracy to rob a federally insured bank in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113, the conviction having been based largely on evidence obtained by the search of a motorcar. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting the contentions, timely made in the trial and appellate courts, that both the original arrest, on a charge of vagrancy, and the subsequent search and seizure had violated the Fourth Amendment. 305 F.2d 172. We granted certiorari. 373 U.S. 931, 83 S.Ct. 1541, 10 L.Ed.2d 689. In the view we take of the case, we need not decide whether the arrest was valid, since we hold that the search and seizure was not.

The police of Newport, Kentucky, received a telephone complaint at 3 o'clock one morning that 'three suspicious men acting suspiciously' had been seated in a motorcar parked in a business district since 10 o'clock the evening before. Four policemen straightaway went to the place where the car was parked and found petitioner and two companions. The officers asked the three men why they were parked there, but the men gave answers which the officers testified were unsatisfactory and evasive. All three men admitted that they were unemployed; all of them together had only 25 cents. One of the men said that he had bought the car the day before (which later turned out to be true), but he could not produce any title. They said that their reason for being there was to meet a truck driver who would pass through Newport that night, but they could not identify the company he worked for, could not say what his truck looked like, and did not know what time he would arrive. The officers arrested the three men for vagrancy, searched them for weapons, and took them to police headquarters. The car, which had not been searched at the time of the arrest, was driven by an officer to the station, from which it was towed to a garage. Soon after the men had been booked at the station, some of the police officers went to the garage to search the car and found two loaded revolvers in the glove compartment. They were unable to open the trunk and returned to the station, where a detective told one of the officers to go back and try to get into the trunk. The officer did so, was able to enter the trunk through the back seat of the car, and in the trunk found caps, women's stockings (one with mouth and eye holes), rope, pillow slips, an illegally manufactured license plate equipped to be snapped over another plate, and other items. After the search one of petitioner's companions confessed that he and two others—he did not name petitioner—intended to rob a bank in Berry, Kentucky, a town about 51 miles from Newport. At this, the police called the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the case and turned over to the Bureau the articles found in the car. It was the use of these articles, over timely objections, which raised the Fourth Amendment question we here consider.

The Amendment provides:

'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.'

The question whether evidence obtained by state officers and used against a defendant in a federal trial was obtained by unreasonable search and seizure is to be judged as if the search and seizure had been made by federal officers. Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 80 S.Ct. 1437, 4 L.Ed.2d 1669 (1960). Our cases make it clear that searches of motorcars must meet the test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment before evidence obtained as a result of such searches is admissible. E.g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925); Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879 (1949). Common sense dictates, of course, that questions involving searches of motorcars or other things readily moved cannot be treated as identical to questions arising out of searches of fixed structures like houses. For this reason, what may be an unreasonable search of a house may be reasonable in the case of a motorcar. See Carroll v. United States, sup...

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