United States v. Biswell

Decision Date15 May 1972
Docket NumberNo. 71-81,71-81
Citation406 U.S. 311,32 L.Ed.2d 87,92 S.Ct. 1593
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Loarn Anthony BISWELL
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Warrantless search of locked storeroom during business hours as part of inspection procedure authorized by § 923(g) of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which resulted in the seizure of unlicensed firearms from a dealer federally licensed to deal in sporting weapons held not violative of Fourth Amendment. Pp. 311—317.

442 F.2d 1189, reversed and remanded.

A. Kent Greenawalt for petitioner.

Warren F. Reynolds, Hobbs, N.M., for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Gun Control Act of 1968, 82 Stat. 1213, 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq., authorizes official entry during business hours into 'the premises (including places of storage) of any firearms or ammunition . . . dealer . . . for the purpose of inspecting or examining (1) any records or documents required to be kept . . . and (2) any firearms or ammunition kept or stored by such . . . dealer . . . at such premises.'1 18 U.S.C. § 923(g). Respondent, a pawn shop operator who was federally licensed to deal in sporting weapons, was visited one afternoon by a city policeman and a Federal Treasury agent who identified himself, inspected respondent's books, and requested entry into a locked gun storeroom. Respondent asked whether the agent had a search warrant, and the investigator told him that he did not, but that § 923(g) authorized such inspections. Respondent was given a copy of the section to read and he replied, 'Well, that's what it says so I guess it's okay.' Respondent unlocked the storeroom, and the agent found and seized two sawed-off rifles which respondent was not licensed to possess. He was indicted and convicted for dealing in firearms with- out having paid the required special occupational tax. 2 The Court of Appeals reversed, however, holding that § 923(g) was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment because it authorized warrantless searches of business premises and that respondent's ostensible consent to the search was invalid under Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 88 S.Ct. 1788, 20 L.Ed.2d 797 (1968). The Court of Appeals concluded that the sawed-off rifles, having been illegally seized, were inadmissible in evidence. 442 F.2d 1189 (CA10 1971). We granted certiorari, 404 U.S. 983, 92 S.Ct. 445, 30 L.Ed.2d 366 (1971), and now reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

As the Court of Appeals correctly recognized, we had no occasion in See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541, 87 S.Ct. 1737, 18 L.Ed.2d 943 (1967), to consider the reach of the Fourth Amendment with respect to various federal regulatory statutes. In Colonnade Catering Corp. v. United States, 397 U.S. 72, 90 S.Ct. 774, 25 L.Ed.2d 60 (1970), we dealt with the statutory authorization for warrantless inspections of federally licensed dealers in alcoholic beverages. There, federal inspectors, without a warrant and without the owner's permission, had forcibly entered a locked storeroom and seized illegal liquor. Emphasizing the historically broad authority of the Government to regulate the liquor industry and the approval of similar inspection laws of this kind in Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 6 S.Ct. 524, 29 L.Ed. 746 (1886),3 we concluded that Congress had ample power 'to design such powers of inspection under the liquor laws as it deems necessary to meet the evils at hand.' 397 U.S., at 76, 90 S.Ct., at 777. We found, however, that Congress had not expressly provided for forcible entry in the absence of a warrant and had instead given Government agents a remedy by making it a criminal offense to refuse admission to the inspectors under 26 U.S.C. § 7342.

Here, the search was not accompanied by any unauthorized force, and if the target of the inspection had been a federally licensed liquor dealer, it is clear under Colonnade that the Fourth Amendment would not bar a seizure of illicit liquor. When the officers asked to inspect respondent's locked storeroom, they were merely asserting their statutory right, and respondent was on notice as to their identity and the legal basis for their action. Respondent's submission to lawful authority and his decision to step aside and permit the inspection rather than face a criminal prosecution4 is analogous to a householder's acquiescence in a search pursuant to a warrant when the alternative is a possible criminal prosecution for refusing entry or a forcible entry. In neither case does the lawfulness of the search depend on consent; in both, there is lawful authority independent of the will of the householder who might, other things being equal, prefer no search at all. In this context, Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 88 S.Ct. 1788, 20 L.Ed.2d 797 (1968), is inapposite, since there the police relied on a warrant that was never shown to be valid; because their demand for entry was not pursuant to lawful authority, the acquiscence of the householder was held an involuntary consent. In the context of a regulatory inspection system of business premises that is carefully limited in time, place, and scope, the legality of the search depends not on consent but on the authority of a valid statute.

We think a like result is required in the present case, which involves a similar inspection system aimed at federally licensed dealers in firearms. Federal regulation of the interstate traffic in firearms is not as deeply rooted in history as is governmental control of the liquor industry, but close scrutiny of this traffic is undeniably of central importance to federal efforts to prevent violent crime and to assist the States in regulating the firearms traffic within their borders. See Congressional Findings and Declaration, Note preceding 18 U.S.C. § 922. Large interests are at stake, and inspection is a crucial part of the regulatory scheme, since it assures that weapons are distributed through regular channels and in a traceable manner and makes possible the prevention of sales to undesirable customers and the detection of the origin of particular firearms.

It is also apparent that if the law is to be properly enforced and inspection made effective, inspections without warrant must be deemed reasonable official conduct under the Fourth Amendment. In See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541, 87 S.Ct. 1737, 18 L.Ed.2d 943 (1967), the mission of the inspection system was to discover and correct violations of the building code, conditions that were relatively difficult to conceal or to correct in a short time. Periodic inspection sufficed, and inspection warrants could be required and privacy given a measure of protection with little if any threat to the effectiveness of the inspection system there at issue. We expressly refrained in that case from questioning a warrantless regulatory search such as that authorized by § 923 of the Gun Control Act. Here, if inspection is to be effective and serve as a credible deterrent, unannounced, even frequent, inspections are essential. In this context, the prerequisite of a warrant could easily frustrate inspection; and if the necessary flexibility as to time, scope, and frequency is to be preserved, the protections afforded by a warrant would be negligible.

It is also plain that inspections for compliance with the Gun Control Act pose only limited threats to the dealer's justifiable expectations of privacy. When a dealer chooses to engage in this pervasively regulated business and to accept a federal license, he does so with the knowledge that his business records, firearms, and ammunition will be subject to effective inspection. Each licensee is annually furnished with a revised compilation of ordinances that describe his obligations and define the inspector's authority. 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(19). The dealer is not left to wonder about the purposes of the inspector or the limits of his task.

We have little difficulty in concluding that where, as here, regulatory inspections further urgent federal interest, and the possibilities of abuse and the threat to privacy are not of impressive dimensions, the inspection may proceed without a warrant where specifically authorized by statute. The seizure of respondent's sawed-off rifles was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. So ordered.

Judgment of Court of Appeals reversed and case remanded.

Mr. Justice BLACKMUN, concurring in the result.

Had I been a member of the Court when Colonnade Catering Corp. v. United States, 397 U.S. 72, 90 S.Ct. 774, 25 L.Ed.2d 60 (1970), was decided, I would have joined the respective dissenting opinions of Mr. Justice Black and of The Chief Justice, 397 U.S., at 79 and 77, 90 S.Ct., at 778 and 777. I therefore concur in the result here.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, dissenting.

As Mr. Justice Clark, writing for the three-judge panel in the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit said, the Federal Gun Control Act, 18 U.S.C. § 923(g), has a provision for inspection that is 'almost identical' with the one in Colonnade Catering Corp. v. United States, 397 U.S. 72, 90 S.Ct. 774, 25 L.Ed.2d 60.

The present one provides:

'The Secretary may enter during business hours the premises (including places of storage) of any firearms or ammunition . . . dealer . . . for the purpose of inspecting or examining (1) any records or documents required to be kept . . . and (2) any firearms or ammunition kept or stored by such . . . dealer . . .' 18 U.S.C. § 923(g).

The one is Colonnade provided:

'The Secretary or his delegate may enter during business hours the premises . . . of any dealer for the purpose of inspecting or examining any records or other documents required to be kept . . . under this chapter . . ..' 26 U.S.C. § 5146(b).

The Court legitimates this inspection...

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