United States v. Ventresca

Citation380 U.S. 102,13 L.Ed.2d 684,85 S.Ct. 741
Decision Date01 March 1965
Docket NumberNo. 28,28
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Giacomo VENTRESCA
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Frank I. Goodman, Beverly Hills, Cal., for petitioner.

Matthew R. McCann, Worcester, Mass., for respondent.

Mr. Justice GOLDBERG delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, Ventresca, was convicted in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts of possessing and operating an illegal distillery. The conviction was reversed by the Court of Appeals (one judge dissenting) on the ground that the affidavit for a search warrant pursuant to which the still was found was insufficient to establish probable cause. 324 F.2d 864.

The affidavit upon which the warrant was issued was made and submitted to a United States Commissioner on August 31, 1961, by Walter Mazaka, an Investigator for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Internal Revenue Service. He stated that he had reason to believe that an illegal distillery was in operation in respondent, Ventresca's, house at 148 1/2 Coburn Avenue in Worcester, Massachusetts. The grounds for this belief were set forth in detail in the affidavit, prefaced with the following statement:

'Based upon observations made by me, and based upon information received officially from other Investigators attached to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division assigned to this investigation, and reports orally made to me describing the results of their observations and investigation, this request for the issuance of a search warrant is made.'

The affidavit then described seven different occasions between July 28 and August 30, 1961, when a Pontiac car was driven into the yard to the rear of Ventresca's house. On four occasions the car carried loads of sugar in 60-pound bags; it made two trips loaded with empty tin cans; and once it was merely observed as being heavily laden. Garry, the car's owner, and Incardone, a passenger, were seen on several occasions loading the car at Ventresca's house and later unloading apparently full five-gallon cans at Garry's house late in the evening. On August 28, after a delivery of empty tin cans to Ventresca's house, Garry and Incardone were observed carrying from the house cans which appeared to be filled and placing them in the trunk of Garry's car. The affidavit went on to state that at about 4 a.m. on August 18, and at about 4 a.m. on August 30, 'Investigators' smelled the odor of fermenting mash as they walked along the sidewalk in front of Ventresca's house. On August 18 they heard, '(a)t or about the same time, * * * certain metallic noises.' On August 30, the day before the warrant was applied for, they heard (as they smelled the mash) 'sounds similar to that of a motor or a pump coming from the direction of' Ventresca's house. The affidavit concluded: 'The foregoing information is based upon personal knowledge and information which has been obtained from Investigators of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, Internal Revenue Service, who had been assigned to this investigation.'

The District Court upheld the validity of the warrant on a motion to suppress. The divided Court of Appeals held the warrant insufficient because it read the affidavit as not specifically stating in so many words that the information it contained was based upon the personal knowledge of Mazaka or other reliable investigators. The Court of Appeals reasoned that all of the information recited in the affidavit might conceivably have been obtained by investigators other than Mazaka, and it could not be certain that the information of these other investigators was not in turn based upon hearsay received from unreliable informants rather than their own personal observations. For this reason the court found that probable cause had not been established. 324 F.2d, at 868—870. We granted certiorari to consider the standards by which a reviewing court should approach the interpretation of affidavits supporting warrants which have been duly issued by examining magistrates. 377 U.S. 989, 84 S.Ct. 1910, 12 L.Ed.2d 1043. For the reasons stated below, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


The Fourth Amendment states:

'The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.'1

We begin our analysis of this constitutional rule mindful of the fact that in this case a search was made pursuant to a search warrant. In discussing the Fourth Amendment policy against unnecessary invasions of privacy, we stated in Aguilar v. State of Texas, 378 U.S. 108, 84 S.Ct. 1509, 12 L.Ed.2d 723:

'An evaluation of the constitutionality of a search warrant should begin with the rule that 'the informed and deliberate determinations of magistrates empowered to issue warrants * * * are to be pre- ferred over the hurried action of offices * * * who may happen to make arrests.' United States v. Lefkowitz, 285 U.S. 452, 464, 52 S.Ct. 420, 423, 76 L.Ed. 877. The reasons for this rule go to the foundations of the Fourth Amendment.' 378 U.S., at 110—111, 84 S.Ct., at 1512.

In Jones v. United States, 362 U.S. 257, 270, 80 S.Ct. 725, 735, 4 L.Ed.2d 697, this Court, strongly supporting the preference to be accorded searches under a warrant, indicated that in a doubtful or marginal case a search under a warrant may be sustainable where without one it would fall. In Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 68 S.Ct. 367, 92 L.Ed. 436, and Chapman v. United States, 365 U.S. 610, 81 S.Ct. 776, 5 L.Ed.2d 828, the Court, in condemning searches by officers who invaded premises without a warrant, plainly intimated that had the proper course of obtaining a warrant from a magistrate been followed and had the magistrate on the same evidence available to the police made a finding of probable cause, the serch under the warrant would have been sustained. Mr. Justice Jackson stated for the Court in Johnson:

'The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime. Any assumption that evidence sufficient to support a magistrate's disinterested determination to issue a search warrant will justify the officers in making a search without a warrant would reduce the Amendment to a nullity and leave the people's homes secure only in the discretion of police officers.' Johnson v. United States, supra, 333 U.S., at 13 14, 68 S.Ct., at 369.

The fact that exceptions to the requirement that searches and seizures be undertaken only after obtaining a warrant are limited2 underscores the preference accorded police action taken under a warrant as against searches and seizures without one.

While a warrant may issue only upon a finding of 'probable cause,' this Court has long held that 'the term 'probable cause' * * * means less than evidence which would justify condemnation,' Locke v. United States, 7 Cranch 339, 348, 3 L.Ed. 364, and that a finding of 'probable cause' may rest upon evidence which is not legally competent in a criminal trial. Draper v. United States, 358 U.S. 307, 311, 79 S.Ct. 329, 332, 3 L.Ed.2d 327. As the Court stated in Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 173, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 1309, 93 L.Ed. 1879, 'There is a large difference between the two things to be proved (guilt and probable cause), as well as between the tribunals which determine them, and therefore a like difference in the quanta and modes of proof required to establish them.' Thus hearsay may be the basis for issuance of the warrant 'so long as there * * * (is) a substantial basis for crediting the hearsay.' Jones v. United States, supra, 362 U.S., at 272, 80 S.Ct., at 736. And, in Aguilar we recognized that 'an affidavit may be based on hearsay information and need not reflect the direct personal observations of the affiant,' so long as the magistrate is 'informed of some of the underlying circumstances' supporting the affiant's conclusions and his belief that any informant involved 'whose identity need not be disclosed * * * was 'credible' or his information 'reliable." Aguilar v. State of Texas, supra, 378 U.S., at 114, 84 S.Ct., at 1514.

These decisions reflect the recognition that the Fourth Amendment's commands, like all constitutional requirements, are practical and not abstract. If the teachings of the Court's cases are to be followed and the constitutional policy served, affidavits for search warrants, such as the one involved here, must be tested and interpreted by magistrates and courts in a commonsense and realistic fashion. They are normally drafted by nonlawyers in the midst and haste of a criminal investigation. Technical requirements of elaborate specificity once exacted under common law pleadings have no proper place in this area. A grudging or negative attitude by reviewing courts toward warrants will tend to discourage police officers from submitting their evidence to a judicial officer before acting.

This is not to say that probable cause can be made out by affidavits which are purely conclusory, stating only the affiant's or an informer's belief that probable cause exists without detailing any of the 'underlying circum- stances' upon which that belief is based. See Aguilar v. State of Texas, supra. Recital of some of the underlying circumstances in the affidavit is essential if the magistrate is to perform his detached function and not serve merely as a rubber stamp for the police. However, where these circumstances are...

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