United States v. Van Leeuwen, 403

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtDOUGLAS
Citation25 L.Ed.2d 282,397 U.S. 249,90 S.Ct. 1029
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Gerritt Johannes VAN LEEUWEN
Docket NumberNo. 403,403
Decision Date23 March 1970

Solicitor Gen., Erwin N. Griswold, for petitioner.

Craig G. Davis for respondent.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, at about 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, 1968, mailed two 12-pound packages at the post office in Mt. Vernon, Washington, a town some 60 miles from the Canadian border. One package was addressed to a post office box in Van Nuys, California, and the other to a post office box in Nashville, Tennessee. Respondent declared they contained coins. Each pack- age was to be sent airmail registered and each was insured for $10,000, a type of mailing that the parties agree was first class, making them not subject to discretionary inspection.1

When the postal clerk told a policeman who happened to be present that he was suspicious of the packages, the policeman at once noticed that the return address on the packages was a vacant housing area of a nearby junior college, and that the license plates of respondent's car were British Columbia. The policeman called the Canadian police, who called customs in Seattle. At 3 o'clock that afternoon customs called Van Nuys and learned that the addressee of one package was under investigation in Van Nuys for trafficking in illegal coins. Due to the time differential, Seattle customs was unable to reach Nashville until the following morning, March 29, when Seattle was advised that the second addressee was also being investigated for the same crime. A customs official in Seattle thereupon filed an affidavit for a search warrant for both packages with a United States commissioner, who issued the search warrant at 4 p.m., and it was executed in Mt. Vernon at 6:30 p.m., 2 1/2 hours later. Thereupon the packages were opened, inspected, resealed and promptly sent on their way.

Other evidence showed that respondent had brought the two packages in from Canada without declaring them. He was tried for illegally importing gold coins in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 545 and found guilty and sentenced and fined. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the coins were improperly admitted in evidence because a timely warrant had not been obtained. 414 F.2d 758. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari, 396 U.S. 885, 90 S.Ct. 175, 24 L.Ed.2d 160. We reverse.

It has long been held that first-class mail such as letters and sealed packages subject to letter postage—as distinguished from newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and other printed matter—is free from inspection by postal authorities, except in the manner provided by the Fourth Amendment. As stated in Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733, 24 L.Ed. 877, decided in 1878:

'Letters and sealed packages of this kind in the mail are as fully guarded from examination and inspection, except as to their outward form and weight, as if they were retained by the parties forwarding them in their own domiciles. The constitutional guaranty of the right of the people to be secure in their papers against unreasonable searches and seizures extends to their papers, thus closed against inspection, wherever they may be. Whilst in the mail, they can only be opened and examined under like warrant, issued upon similar oath or affirmation, particularly describing the thing to be seized, as is required when papers are subjected to search in one's own household. No law of Congress can place in the hands of officials connected with the postal service any authority to invade the secrecy of letters and such sealed packages in the mail; and all regulations adopted as to mail matter of this kind must be in subordination to the great principle embodied in the fourth amendment of the Constitution.'

The course of events since 1878 has underlined the relevance and importance of the Post Office to our constitutional rights. Mr. Justice Holmes in United States ex rel. Milwaukee Social Democratic Pub. Co. v. Burleson, 255 U.S. 407, 437, 41 S.Ct. 352, 363, 65 L.Ed. 704 (dissenting opinion), said that 'the use of the mails is almost as much a part of free speech as the right to use our tongues.' We have emphasized over and over again that while Congress may classify the mail and fix the...

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336 cases
  • People v. Baker, Cr. 7920
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • October 21, 1970
    ...arrest." (Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 22, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1880, 20 L.Ed.2d 889. See also, United States v. Van Leeuwen (1970) 397 U.S. 249, 251-253, 90 S.Ct. 1029, 25 L.Ed.2d 282, 285-286; People v. Mickelson (1963) 59 Cal.2d 448, 450-451, 30 Cal.Rptr. 18, 380 P.2d 658; People v. Barret......
  • State v. Matthews, Cr. N
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of North Dakota
    • January 31, 1974
    ...(United States v. Brown, Supra), and to contents of packages shipped through the United States mails (United States v. Van Leeuwen, 397 U.S. 249, 90 S.Ct. 1029, 25 L.Ed.2d 282 (1970)). In the last case, the distiction was made between first-class mail such as letters and sealed packages sub......
  • US v. Conley
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • January 7, 1994
    ...2586, 61 L.Ed.2d 235 (1979); United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 97 S.Ct. 2476, 53 L.Ed.2d 538 (1977); United States v. Van Leeuwen, 397 U.S. 249 90 S.Ct. 1029, 25 L.Ed.2d 282 (1970); Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733 24 L.Ed. 877 (1878), or one of the well-delineated exceptions to the w......
  • U.S. v. Christie, Criminal No. 07-332 (HAA).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • August 13, 2008
    ...warrant, they do not violate the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable seizures."); see also United States v. Van Leeuwen, 397 U.S. 249, 253, 90 S.Ct. 1029, 25 L.Ed.2d 282 (1970) (cited favorably in McArthur for its holding that a 29-hour detention of a mailed package was rea......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
  • Fourth amendment primer
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Suppressing Criminal Evidence Fourth amendment searches and seizures
    • April 1, 2022
    ...Walter v. United States , 447 U.S. 649, 657 (1980). • Mail and packages, including by private carriers. United States v. Van Leeuwen , 397 U.S. 249 (1970); Walter v. United States , supra. • Bodily fluid samples, such as blood or urine. Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Ass’n ., 489 U.S.......
  • Special needs' and other fourth amendment searches
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Suppressing Criminal Evidence Fourth amendment searches and seizures
    • April 1, 2022
    ...§233.3(g). The courts have extended the same protection to packages sent through the U.S. Postal Service. United States v. Van Leeuwen , 397 U.S. 249 (1970). Police may not search letters and packages without a warrant; however, they may hold these for a reasonable amount of time to procure......
  • The Supreme Court of the United States, 1969-1970
    • United States
    • Political Research Quarterly No. 23-4, December 1970
    • December 1, 1970
    ...a search warrantcannot be said to be &dquo;unreasonable&dquo; within the meaning of the Fourth Amend-ment. United States v. Van Leeuwan, 397 U.S. 249; 90 S. Ct. 1029. Opinion byJustice Douglas. Vote: Where the defendant was arrested on the street just outside his home, under the Fourth Amen......

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