United States v. Chadwick

Decision Date21 June 1977
Docket NumberNo. 75-1721,75-1721
Citation433 U.S. 1,53 L.Ed.2d 538,97 S.Ct. 2476
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Joseph A. CHADWICK et al., Respondents
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

When respondents arrived by train in Boston from San Diego, they were arrested at their waiting automobile by federal narcotics agents, who had been alerted that respondents were possible drug traffickers. A double-locked footlocker, which respondents had transported on the train and which the agents had probable cause to believe contained narcotics, had been loaded in the trunk of the automobile. Respondents, together with the automobile and footlocker, which was admittedly under the agents' exclusive control, were then taken to the Federal Building in Boston. An hour and a half after the arrests the agents opened the footlocker without respondents' consent or a search warrant and found large amounts of marihuana in it. Respondents were subsequently indicted for possession of marihuana with intent to distribute it. The District Court granted their pretrial motion to suppress the marihuana obtained from the footlocker, holding that warrantless searches are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless they fall within some established exception to the warrant requirement, and that the footlocker search was not justified under either the "automobile exception" or as a search incident to a lawful arrest; the Court of Appeals affirmed. Held: Respondents were entitled to the protection of the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment, with the evalua- tion of a neutral magistrate, before their privacy interests in the contents of the footlocker were invaded. Pp. 6-16.

(a) A fundamental purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to safeguard individuals from unreasonable government invasions of legitimate privacy interests, and not simply those interests inside the four walls of the home. Pp. 6-11.

(b) By placing personal effects inside a double-locked footlocker, respondents manifested an expectation that the contents would remain free from public examination, and no less than one who locks the doors of his home against intruders, one who safeguards his personal possessions in this manner is due the protection of the Fourth Amendment's Warrant Clause; since there was no exigency calling for an immediate search, it was unreasonable for the Government to conduct the search without the safeguards a judicial warrant provides. P. 11.

(c) The footlocker search was not justified under the "automobile exception," since a person's expectations of privacy in personal luggage are substantially greater than in an automobile. In this connection, the footlocker's mobility did not justify dispensing with a search warrant, because once the federal agents had seized the footlocker at the railroad station and safely transferred it to the Federal Building under their exclusive control, there was not the slightest danger that it or its contents could have been removed before a valid search warrant could be obtained. Pp. 11-13.

(d) Nor was the footlocker search justified as a search incident to a lawful arrest, where the search was remote in time or place from the arrest and no exigency existed, the search having been conducted more than an hour after the federal agents had gained exclusive control of the footlocker and long after respondents were securely in custody. Pp. 14-16.

1 Cir., 532 F.2d 773, affirmed.

A. Raymond Randolph, Jr., Deputy Sol. Gen., Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Martin G. Weinberg, Boston, Mass., for respondents.

Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to decide whether a search warrant is required before federal agents may open a locked footlocker which they have lawfully seized at the time of the arrest of its owners, when there is probable cause to believe the footlocker contains contraband.


On May 8, 1973, Amtrak railroad officials in San Diego observed respondents Gregory Machado and Bridget Leary load a brown footlocker onto a train bound for Boston. Their suspicions were aroused when they noticed that the trunk was unusually heavy for its size, and that it was leaking talcum power, a substance often used to mask the odor of marihuana or hashish. Because Machado matched a profile used to spot drug traffickers, the railroad officials reported these circumstances to federal agents in San Diego, who in turn relayed the information, together with detailed descriptions of Machado and the footlocker, to their counterparts in Boston.

When the train arrived in Boston two days later, federal narcotics agents were on hand. Though the officers had not obtained an arrest or search warrant, they had with them a police dog trained to detect marihuana. The agents identified Machado and Leary and kept them under surveillance as they claimed their suitcases and the footlocker, which had been transported by baggage cart from the train to the departure area. Machado and Leary lifted the footlocker from the baggage cart, placed it on the floor and sat down on it.

The agents then released the dog near the footlocker. Without alerting respondents, the dog signaled the presence of a controlled substance inside. Respondent Chadwick then joined Machado and Leary, and they engaged an attendant to move the footlocker outside to Chadwick's waiting automobile. Machado, Chadwick, and the attendant together lifted the 200-pound footlocker into the trunk of the car, while Leary waited in the front seat. At that point, while the trunk of the car was still open and before the car engine had been started, the officers arrested all three. A search disclosed no weapons, but the keys to the footlocker were apparently taken from Machado.

Respondents were taken to the Federal Building in Boston; the agents followed with Chadwick's car and the footlocker. As the Government concedes, from the moment of respondents' arrests at about 9 p. m., the footlocker remained under the exclusive control of law enforcement officers at all times. The footlocker and luggage were placed in the Federal Building, where, as one of the agents later testified, "there was no risk that whatever was contained in the footlocker trunk would be removed by the defendants or their associates." App. 44. The agents had no reason to believe that the footlocker contained explosives or other inherently dangerous items, or that it contained evidence which would lose its value unless the footlocker were opened at once. Facilities were readily available in which the footlocker could have been stored securely; it is not contended that there was any exigency calling for an immediate search.

At the Federal Building an hour and a half after the arrests, the agents opened the footlocker and luggage. They did not obtain respondents' consent; they did not secure a search warrant. The footlocker was locked with a padlock and a regular trunk lock. It is unclear whether it was opened with the keys taken from respondent Machado, or by other means. Large amounts of marihuana were found in the footlocker.1

Respondents were indicted for possession of marihuana with intent to distribute it, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and for conspiracy, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. Before trial, they moved to suppress the marihuana obtained from the footlocker. In the District Court, the Government sought to justify its failure to secure a search warrant under the "automobile exception" of Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 90 S.Ct. 1975, 26 L.Ed.2d 419 (1970), and as a search incident to the arrests. Holding that "(w)arrantless searches are per se unreasonable, subject to a few carefully delineated and limited exceptions," the District Court rejected both justifications. 393 F.Supp. 763, 771 (Mass.1975). The court saw the relationship between the footlocker and Chadwick's automobile as merely coincidental, and held that the double-locked, 200-pound footlocker was not part of "the area from within which (respondents) might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 2040, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969).

A divided Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the suppression of the seized marihuana. The court held that the footlocker had been properly taken into federal custody after respondents' lawful arrest; it also agreed that the agents had probable cause to believe that the footlocker contained a controlled substance when they opened it. But probable cause alone was held not enough to sustain the warrantless search. On the premise that warrantless searches are per se unreasonable unless they fall within some established exception to the warrant requirement, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that the footlocker search was not justified either under the "automobile exception" or as a search incident to a lawful arrest.

The Court of Appeals then responded to an argument, suggested by the Government for the first time on appeal, that movable personalty lawfully seized in a public place should be subject to search without a warrant if there exists probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime. Conceding that such personalty shares some characteristics of mobility which support warrantless automobile searches, the court nevertheless concluded that a rule permitting a search of personalty on probable cause alone had not yet "received sufficient recognition by the Supreme Court outside the automobile area, or generally, for us to recognize it as a valid exception to the fourth amendment warrant requirement." 532 F.2d 773, 781 (1976). We granted certiorari, 429 U.S. 814, 97 S.Ct. 54, 50 L.Ed.2d 74 (1976). We affirm.


In this Court the Government again contends that the Fourth Amendment Warrant Clause protects only interests traditionally identified with the home.2 Recalling the colonial writs of assistance, which were often executed in searches of...

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