United States v. Johns

Decision Date21 January 1985
Docket NumberNo. 83-1625,83-1625
Citation83 L.Ed.2d 890,469 U.S. 478,105 S.Ct. 881
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Lyle Gerald JOHNS et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Pursuant to an investigation of a suspected drug smuggling operation, United States Customs officers, by ground and air surveillance, observed two pickup trucks as they traveled to a remote private airstrip in Arizona and the arrival and departure there of two small airplanes. The officers smelled the odor of marihuana as they approached the trucks and saw in the back of the trucks packages wrapped in dark green plastic and sealed with tape, a common method of packaging marihuana. After arresting certain of the respondents at the airstrip, the officers took the trucks back to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters, and the packages were then placed in a DEA warehouse. Three days after the packages were seized from the trucks, Government agents, without obtaining a search warrant, opened some of the packages and took samples that later proved to be marihuana. Before trial on federal drug charges, the District Court granted the respondents' motion to suppress the marihuana, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding, inter alia, that United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572—which held that if police officers have probable cause to search a lawfully stopped vehicle, they may conduct a warrantless search of any containers found inside that may conceal the object of the search did not authorize the warrantless search of the packages three days after they were removed from the trucks.

Held:

1. Respondents' argument that the suppression of the marihuana should be affirmed on the grounds that the officers never had probable cause to conduct a vehicle search, thus rendering Ross inapplicable, is without merit. The record shows that the officers had probable cause to believe that not only the packages but also the trucks themselves contained contraband. United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 97 S.Ct. 2476, 53 L.Ed.2d 538, distinguished. Respondents' contention that the record fails to show that a vehicle search ever in fact occurred is also without merit, since even though the trucks were not searched at the scene, the Government officers conducted a vehicle search at least to the extent of entering the trucks and removing the packages at DEA headquarters. Pp. 482-483.

2. The warrantless search of the packages was not unreasonable merely because it occurred three days after the packages were unloaded from the trucks. Ross establishes that the officers could have lawfully searched the packages when they were first discovered in the trucks at the airstrip, and there is no requirement that the warrantless search of a vehicle occur contemporaneously with its lawful seizure. Neither does Ross nor other "vehicle search" decisions of this Court suggest that warrantless searches of containers must invariably be conducted "immediately" as part of the vehicle inspection or "soon thereafter." Moreover, the Court of Appeals' approach fails to further the privacy interests protected by the Fourth Amendment. Because the officers had probable cause to believe that the trucks contained contraband, any expectation of privacy in the vehicles or their contents was subject to the officers' authority to conduct a warrantless search, and the warrantless search of the packages was not unreasonable merely because the officers returned to DEA headquarters and placed the packages in the warehouse rather than immediately opening them. Inasmuch as the Government was entitled to seize the packages and could have searched them immediately without a warrant, the warrantless search three days after the packages were placed in the warehouse was reasonable and consistent with this Court's precedent involving searches of impounded vehicles. Pp. 483-488.

707 F.2d 1093 (CA9 1983), reversed and remanded.

Alan I. Horowitz, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

William G. Walker, Tucson, Ariz., for respondents.

Justice O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982), the Court held that if police officers have probable cause to search a lawfully stopped vehicle, they may conduct a warrantless search of any containers found inside that may conceal the object of the search. The issue in the present case is whether Ross authorizes a warrantless search of packages several days after they were removed from vehicles that police officers had probable cause to believe contained contraband. Although the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that under Ross the police officers could have searched the packages when they were first discovered in the vehicles, the court concluded that the delay after the initial seizure made the subsequent warrantless search unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. 707 F.2d 1093 (1983). We granted certiorari, 467 U.S. 1250, 104 S.Ct. 3532, 82 L.Ed.2d 838 (1984), and we now reverse.

I

Pursuant to an investigation of a suspected drug smuggling operation, a United States Customs officer went to respondent Duarte's residence in Tucson, Ariz., where he saw two pickup trucks. The Customs officer observed the trucks drive away, and he contacted other officers who conducted ground and air surveillance of the trucks as they traveled 100 miles to a remote private airstrip near Bowie, Ariz., approximately 50 miles from the Mexican border. Soon after the trucks arrived, a small aircraft landed. Although the Customs officers on the ground were unable to see what transpired, their counterparts in the air informed them that one of the trucks had approached the airplane. After a short time, the aircraft departed. A second small aircraft landed and then departed.

Two Customs officers on the ground came closer and parked their vehicles about 30 yards from the two trucks. One officer approached to investigate and saw an individual at the rear of one of the trucks covering the contents with a blanket. The officer ordered respondents to come out from behind the trucks and to lie on the ground. As he and the other officer walked towards the trucks, they smelled the odor of marihuana. They saw in the back of the trucks packages wrapped in dark green plastic and sealed with tape. Based on their prior experience, the officers knew that smuggled marihuana is commonly packaged in this manner. Respondents Duarte, Leon, Gomez, Redmond, and Soto were arrested at the scene. The Customs Office surveillance aircraft followed the two small airplanes back to Tucson. Respondents Johns and Hearron, the pilots, were arrested upon landing.

The Customs officers did not search the pickup trucks at the desert airstrip. Instead, after arresting the respondents who were at the scene, the Customs officers took the trucks back to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters in Tucson. The packages were removed from the trucks and placed in a DEA warehouse. Without obtaining a search warrant, DEA agents opened some of the packages and took samples that later proved to be marihuana. Although the record leaves unclear precisely when the agents opened the packages, the parties do not dispute the conclusion of the Court of Appeals, 707 F.2d, at 1095, that the search occurred three days after the packages were seized from the pickup trucks.

A federal grand jury in the District of Arizona indicted respondents for conspiracy to possess and possession of marihuana with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. Before trial, the District Court granted respondents' motion to suppress the marihuana, and the Government appealed pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3731. The Court of Appeals rejected the Government's contentions that the plain odor of marihuana emanating from the packages made a warrant unnecessary and that respondents Johns and Hearron lacked standing to challenge the search of the packages. 707 F.2d, at 1095-1096, 1099-1100. Neither of these issues is before this Court. Finally, the Court of Appeals held that Ross did not authorize the warrantless search of the packages three days after they were removed from the pickup trucks. 707 F.2d, at 1097-1099. Because we disagree with this conclusion, we reverse.

II

Respondents argue that we should affirm the suppression of the marihuana on the ground that the Customs officers never had probable cause to conduct a vehicle search, and therefore Ross is inapplicable to this case. Instead, respondents contend that United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 97 S.Ct. 2476, 53 L.Ed.2d 538 (1977), establishes that the warrantless search was unlawful. These arguments are not persuasive. The events surrounding the rendezvous of the aircraft and the pickup trucks at the isolated desert airstrip indicated that the vehicles were involved in smuggling activity. The Customs officers on the ground were unable to observe the airplanes after they landed, and consequently did not see the packages loaded into the pickup trucks. After the officers came closer and detected the distinct odor of marihuana, they had probable cause to believe that the vehicles contained contraband. See Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 149, 162, 45 S.Ct. 280, 283, 288, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925). Given their experience with drug smuggling cases, the officers no doubt suspected that the scent was emanating from the packages that they observed in the back of the pickup trucks. The officers, however, were unaware of the packages until they approached the trucks, and contraband might well have been hidden elsewhere in the vehicles. We agree with the Court of Appeals, see 707 F.2d, at 1097, that the Customs officers had probable cause to believe that not only the packages but also the vehicles themselves contained contraband.

Under the circumstances of this case, respondents' reliance on Chadwick is misplaced. In Chadwick, police officers had...

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