United States v. Sohnen, No. 68-CR-233.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
Writing for the CourtBenjamin Lebenbaum, New York City, for defendant
Citation298 F. Supp. 51
Docket NumberNo. 68-CR-233.
Decision Date10 March 1969
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. Morris SOHNEN, Defendant.

298 F. Supp. 51

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Morris SOHNEN, Defendant.

No. 68-CR-233.

United States District Court E. D. New York.

March 10, 1969.


298 F. Supp. 52

Vincent T. McCarthy, U. S. Atty., for the Eastern District of New York, Brooklyn, N. Y., for plaintiff; Denis E. Dillon, Asst. U. S., Atty., of counsel.

Benjamin Lebenbaum, New York City, for defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

WEINSTEIN, District Judge.

The defendant is charged in a three-count indictment with knowingly and willfully acquiring and possessing gold coins without a license (12 U.S.C. § 95a) and concealing and facilitating the transportation and concealment of gold coins with knowledge that they had been illegally imported into the United States (18 U.S.C. § 545). Evidence was obtained through pre-delivery inspection at New York City customs headquarters of defendant's mail from abroad and a search of his apartment at the time of his arrest.

The legality of the search and inspection has been challenged by a pre-trial suppression motion pursuant to Rule 41(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The government concedes that it had no warrants and that the mail was opened in violation of postal

298 F. Supp. 53
regulations. For the reasons noted below, evidence obtained as a result of the search of the apartment is suppressed, but evidence resulting from opening defendant's mail may be introduced at the trial

FACTS

Customs Agent George F. Neilson, without obtaining a search warrant, opened a sealed package containing twelve gold coins which had been mailed to the defendant from Switzerland. The package had been referred to Neilson for examination by the Mail Entry Section of the Customs Department, a procedure which was followed whenever there was a suspicion that a package might contain dutiable or prohibited matter. In this instance, the weight and feel of the package were unusual and it did not bear a required label stating that it could be opened for customs inspection. 19 C.F.R. § 9.5(a); 39 C.F. R. §§ 221.4, 261.3(a). After a spectroscopic examination revealed that it contained twelve disc-shaped objects, each about the size of an American silver dollar, the package was opened.

This search of the defendant's mail— and the subsequent search described below —was contrary to postal regulations. They provide that "if there is reason to believe that prohibited matter is contained in a sealed letter" a notice is to be sent "to the addressee requesting authorization to open the letter and examine its contents"; if authorization is not given the letter is to be returned "unopened, to its origin." 39 C.F.R. § 262.1. See also 39 C.F.R. §§ 261.1, 261.3(a). Whether customs regulations were also violated is not clear. See 19 C.F.R. §§ 9.5(b), 9.12(d).

When the opened package was found to contain gold coins, Neilson checked the "Fine Book," a customs record listing all notices requesting permission to open sent to addressees of foreign mail. He discovered that the defendant had recently been sent several packages from abroad addressed to three different New York City post office boxes. In each instance, the defendant had failed to give his consent to the opening of the package and it was returned to the sender.

On the basis of this information and after consultation with an Assistant United States Attorney, Neilson placed an alert on all foreign mail sent to the defendant and examined it prior to delivery. A watch was put on defendant's post office boxes and Neilson and other agents observed the defendant picking up his foreign mail on several occasions. Defendant was followed. Although he visted several coin dealers, he was never observed leaving anything behind.

Four weeks after opening the first package Neilson opened—again without a search warrant—another sealed package mailed to defendant from abroad. It contained fifteen gold coins. It was resealed and forwarded to the defendant's post office box where Neilson and two other agents waited. Fully observed, defendant, after picking up the package, met his wife about a block from the post office and drove off.

By the time Neilson and his fellow agents reached their own car, defendant was out of sight. The agents drove directly to defendant's home, and, as they pulled up they saw defendant and his wife entering their apartment house.

The agents immediately went to the defendant's apartment and, when the defendant came to the door, placed him under arrest and advised him of his constitutional rights. Neilson then told the defendant that they would search the entire apartment unless he revealed where his coins were kept. The defendant showed the agents a small room which, he said, he used as an office. He handed Neilson the package he had just picked up at the post office. The room was searched. Seized were a large quantity of gold coins and a looseleaf book containing records of gold coin transactions with foreign firms and receipts for sales of gold coins to domestic dealers. After completing their search, the agents left the defendant but took his gold and records.

298 F. Supp. 54

SEARCH OF DEFENDANT'S MAIL

The determination of whether an administrative search is "reasonable" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment involves the striking of a balance between the government's need to know and to inspect in our complex, highly regulated society and the individual's right to the privacy of his person, thoughts and possessions. In the present case, we are faced with a conflict between the government's efforts to protect the nation without hindering the smooth flow of international mail and the individual's interest in the privacy of his mail. Based upon the analysis set out below, we think that the nature and conduct of the mail search in this case swings the balance against suppression.

A government has a well-recognized right to conduct customs searches of persons and merchandise as they enter the country. See Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 149-154, 45 S.Ct. 280, 285, 69 L.Ed. 543, 39 A.L.R. 790 (1925) ("Travellers may be so stopped in crossing an international boundary because of national self protection reasonably requiring one to identify himself as entitled to come in, and his belongings as effects which may be lawfully brought in"); Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 623, 6 S.Ct. 524, 528, 29 L.Ed. 746 (1886) ("the seizure of goods forfeited for a breach of the revenue laws, or concealed to avoid the duties payable on them, has been authorized by English statutes for at least two centuries and the like seizures have been authorized by our own revenue acts from the commencement of the government"). The special problems presented by the smuggler were not unknown to the founding fathers, some of whom engaged in the trade from financial as well as patriotic motives. What "was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when it was adopted * * *" has a bearing on the construction of the Fourth Amendment. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 149, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543, 39 A.L.R. 790 (1925).

Exercising this historical customs power, Congress has conferred, and the courts have recognized, broad authority in customs officials to conduct border searches without a warrant and without a showing of probable cause. E. g., 19 U. S.C. § 1496 (examination of "baggage of any person arriving in the United States"); 19 U.S.C. § 482 (authority to conduct border searches of "any vehicle, beast, or person, on which or whom * * customs officials shall suspect there is merchandise which is subject to duty, or shall have been introduced into the United States in any manner contrary to law * * *, and to search any trunk or envelope, wherever found, in which he customs officer may have reasonable cause to suspect there is merchandise which was imported contrary to law"); 19 U.S.C. § 1499 (opening and examination of packages containing merchandise); 19 U.S.C. § 1581(a) (authority of customs officials to board and search vessels and vehicles); 19 U.S.C. § 1582 (authority to search "all persons coming into the United States from foreign countries"); Thomas v. United States, 372 F.2d 252,...

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28 practice notes
  • People v. Duncan, Cr. 11224
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • July 26, 1974
    ...S.Ct. 921, 13 L.Ed.2d 807); United States v. Swede (S.D.N.Y.1971), 326 F.Supp. 533, 535--536, and United States v. Sohnen (E.D.N.Y.1969), 298 F.Supp. 51, 54--55.) 4 Defendant contends that because of the express words of the statute, and the regulations promulgated for the guidance of custo......
  • U.S. v. Ramsey, Nos. 75-1275
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • June 10, 1976
    ...U.S. 922, 85 S.Ct. 921, 13 L.Ed.2d 807 (1965); United States v. Swede, 326 F.Supp. 533, 535-36 (S.D.N.Y.1971); United States v. Sohnen,298 F.Supp. 51, 54-55 (E.D.N.Y.1969). The last-mentioned court, (Weinstein, J.), indicated that it might reach a different result where letters, rather than......
  • U.S. v. Choate, No. 76-3486
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • March 15, 1978
    ...seizures cannot be indiscriminate); United States v. Phillips (5th Cir. 1973) 478 F.2d 743; United States v. Sohnen (E.D.N.Y.1969) 298 F.Supp. 51 (4th amendment applies to opening of domestic mail); and see Williams v. Blount (D.D.C.1970) 314 F.Supp. 1356 (3-judge court) (Post Office may no......
  • United States v. Tarlowski, No. 68-CR-278
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • August 4, 1969
    ...383, 34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L. Ed. 652 (1914); Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 6 S.Ct. 524, 29 L.Ed. 746 (1886); United States v. Sohnen, 298 F.Supp. 51, 55-56 (E.D.N.Y.1969), and cases For these reasons, the motion to suppress must be granted. ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results
27 cases
  • People v. Duncan, Cr. 11224
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • July 26, 1974
    ...S.Ct. 921, 13 L.Ed.2d 807); United States v. Swede (S.D.N.Y.1971), 326 F.Supp. 533, 535--536, and United States v. Sohnen (E.D.N.Y.1969), 298 F.Supp. 51, 54--55.) 4 Defendant contends that because of the express words of the statute, and the regulations promulgated for the guidance of custo......
  • U.S. v. Ramsey, Nos. 75-1275
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • June 10, 1976
    ...U.S. 922, 85 S.Ct. 921, 13 L.Ed.2d 807 (1965); United States v. Swede, 326 F.Supp. 533, 535-36 (S.D.N.Y.1971); United States v. Sohnen,298 F.Supp. 51, 54-55 (E.D.N.Y.1969). The last-mentioned court, (Weinstein, J.), indicated that it might reach a different result where letters, rather than......
  • U.S. v. Choate, No. 76-3486
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • March 15, 1978
    ...seizures cannot be indiscriminate); United States v. Phillips (5th Cir. 1973) 478 F.2d 743; United States v. Sohnen (E.D.N.Y.1969) 298 F.Supp. 51 (4th amendment applies to opening of domestic mail); and see Williams v. Blount (D.D.C.1970) 314 F.Supp. 1356 (3-judge court) (Post Office may no......
  • United States v. Tarlowski, No. 68-CR-278
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • August 4, 1969
    ...383, 34 S.Ct. 341, 58 L. Ed. 652 (1914); Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 6 S.Ct. 524, 29 L.Ed. 746 (1886); United States v. Sohnen, 298 F.Supp. 51, 55-56 (E.D.N.Y.1969), and cases For these reasons, the motion to suppress must be granted. ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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