United States v. Watson, 74-538

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWHITE
Citation96 S.Ct. 820,46 L.Ed.2d 598,423 U.S. 411
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Henry Ogle WATSON
Docket NumberNo. 74-538,74-538
Decision Date26 January 1976

423 U.S. 411
96 S.Ct. 820
46 L.Ed.2d 598
UNITED STATES, Petitioner,


Henry Ogle WATSON.

No. 74-538.
Argued Oct. 8, 1975.
Decided Jan. 26, 1976.
Rehearing Denied March 22, 1976.

See 424 U.S. 979, 96 S.Ct. 1488.


A postal inspector received from an informant of known reliability a stolen credit card that respondent had given the informant to be used for their mutual advantage, and the inspector was told by the informant that respondent had agreed to furnish additional cards. At the inspector's suggestion, a meeting was arranged between the informant and respondent for a few days later, which took place at a restaurant. Upon a prearranged signal from the informant that respondent had the additional cards, postal officers made a warrantless arrest of respondent, removed him from the restaurant, and gave him Miranda warnings. When a search of respondent's person revealed no cards, a consented search of his nearby car (after respondent had been cautioned that the results could be used against him) revealed two additional cards in the names of other persons. Following an unsuccessful motion to suppress, these cards were used as evidence in respondent's trial, which resulted in his conviction of possessing stolen mail. The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that the Fourth Amendment prohibited use of that evidence because (1) notwithstanding probable cause for respondent's arrest, the arrest was unconstitutional because the postal inspector had failed to secure an arrest warrant though he had time to do so, and (2) based on the totality of the circumstances (including the illegality of the arrest) respondent's consent to the car search was coerced and thus invalid. Held:

1. The arrest of respondent, having been based on probable cause and made by postal officers acting in strict compliance with the governing statute and regulations, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 414-424.

2. Since the arrest comported with the Fourth Amendment, respondent's consent to the car search was not, contrary to the holding of the Court of Appeals, the product of an illegal arrest, nor were there any other circumstances indicating that respondent's consent was not his own "essentially free and unconstrained

Page 412

choice" because his "will ha(d) been . . . overborne and his capacity for self-determination critically impaired," Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 225, 93 S.Ct. 2041, 2046-2047, 36 L.Ed.2d 854. Pp. 424-425.

504 F.2d 849, reversed.

Andrew L. Frey, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Michael D. Nasatir, Beverly Hills, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents questions under the Fourth Amendment as to the legality of a warrantless arrest and of an ensuing search of the arrestee's automobile carried out with his purported consent.


The relevant events began on August 17, 1972, when an informant, one Khoury, telephoned a postal inspector informing him that respondent Watson was in possession of a stolen credit card and had asked Khoury to cooperate in using the card to their mutual advantage. On five to 10 previous occasions Khoury had provided the inspector with reliable information on postal inspection matters, some involving Watson. Later that day

Page 413

Khoury delivered the card to the inspector. On learning that Watson had agreed to furnish additional cards, the inspector asked Khoury to arrange to meet with Watson. Khoury did so, a meeting being scheduled for August 22.1 Watson canceled that engagement, but at noon on August 23, Khoury met with Watson at a restaurant designated by the latter. Khoury had been instructed that if Watson had additional stolen credit cards, Khoury was to give a designated signal. The signal was given, the officers closed in, and Watson was forthwith arrested. He was removed from the restaurant to the street where he was given the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). A search having revealed that Watson had no credit cards on his person, the inspector asked if he could look inside Watson's car, which was standing within view. Watson said, "Go ahead," and repeated these words when the inspector cautioned that "(i)f I find anything, it is going to go against you." Using keys furnished by Watson, the inspector entered the car and found under the floor mat an envelop containing two credit cards in the names of other persons. These cards were the basis for two counts of a four-count indictment charging Watson with possessing stolen mail in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1708.2

Prior to trial, Watson moved to suppress the cards, claiming that his arrest was illegal for want of probable cause and an arrest warrant and that his consent to search the car was involuntary and ineffective because he had not been told that he could withhold consent.

Page 414

The motion was denied, and Watson was convicted of illegally possessing the two cards seized from his car.3

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, 504 F.2d 849 (1974), ruling that the admission in evidence of the two credit cards found in the car was prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. In reaching this judgment, the court decided two issues in Watson's favor. First, notwithstanding its agreement with the District Court that Khoury was reliable and that there was probable cause for arresting Watson, the court held the arrest unconstitutional because the postal inspector had failed to secure an arrest warrant although he concededly had time to do so. Second, based on the totality of the circumstances, one of which was the illegality of the arrest, the court held Watson's consent to search had been coerced and hence was not a valid ground for the warrantless search of the automobile. We granted certiorari. 420 U.S. 924, 95 S.Ct. 1117, 43 L.Ed.2d 392 (1975).


A major part of the Court of Appeals' opinion was its holding that Watson's warrantless arrest violated the Fourth Amendment. Although it did not expressly do so, it may have intended to overturn the conviction on the independent ground that the two credit cards were the inadmissible fruits of an unconstitutional arrest. Cf. Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 95 S.Ct. 2254, 45 L.Ed.2d 416 (1975). However that may be, the Court of Appeals treated the illegality of Watson's arrest as an important factor in determining the voluntariness of his consent to search his car. We therefore deal first with the arrest issue.

Contrary to the Court of Appeals' view, Watson's arrest was not invalid because executed without a warrant.

Page 415

Title 18 U.S.C. § 3061(a)(3) expressly empowers the Board of Governors of the Postal Service to authorize Postal Service officers and employees "performing duties related to the inspection of postal matters" to

"make arrests without warrant for felonies cognizable under the laws of the United States if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing such a felony."

By regulation, 39 CFR § 232.5(a)(3) (1975), and in identical language, the Board of Governors has exercised that power and authorized warrantless arrests. Because there was probable cause in this case to believe that Watson had violated § 1708, the inspector and his subordinates, in arresting Watson, were acting strictly in accordance with the governing statute and regulations. The effect of the judgment of the Court of Appeals was to invalidate the statute as applied in this case and as applied to all the situations where a court fails to find exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless arrest. We reverse that judgment.

Under the Fourth Amendment, the people are to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, . . . and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause . . . ." Section 3061 represents a judgment by Congress that it is not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for postal inspectors to arrest without a warrant provided they have probable cause to do so.4 This was not an

Page 416

isolated or quixotic judgment of the legislative branch. Other federal law enforcement officers have been expressly authorized by statute for many years to make felony arrests on probable cause but without a warrant. This is true of United States marshals, 18 U.S.C. § 3053, and of agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 18 U.S.C. § 3052; the Drug Enforcement Administration, 84 Stat. 1273, 21 U.S.C. § 878; the Secret Service, 18 U.S.C. § 3056(a); and the Customs Service, 26 U.S.C. § 7607.5

Because there is a "strong presumption of constitutionality due to an Act of Congress, especially when it turns on what is 'reasonable,' " "(o)bviously the Court should be reluctant to decide that a search thus authorized by Congress was unreasonable and that the Act was therefore unconstitutional." United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581, 585, 68 S.Ct. 222, 224, 92 L.Ed. 210 (1948). Moreover, there is nothing in the Court's prior cases indicating that under the

Page 417

Fourth Amendment a warrant is required to make a valid arrest for a felony. Indeed, the relevant prior decisions are uniformly to the contrary.

"The usual rule is that a police officer may arrest without warrant one believed by the officer upon reasonable cause to have been guilty of a felony . . . ." Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 156, 45 S.Ct. 280, 286, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925). In Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 80 S.Ct. 168, 4 L.Ed.2d 134 (1959), the Court dealt with an FBI agent's warrantless arrest under 18 U.S.C. § 3052, which authorizes a warrantless arrest where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a felony. The Court declared that "(t)he statute states the constitutional standard . . . ." Id., at 100, 80 S.Ct., at 170. The necessary inquiry, therefore, was not...

To continue reading

Request your trial
2074 cases
  • People v. Nicholas, Cr. 18506
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • November 19, 1980
    ...living in an automobile; the arrest occurred in a parking lot. Therefore, a warrant was not necessary United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 416-424, 96 S.Ct. 820, 824-828, 46 L.Ed.2d 598). As to the confession, we are not confronted with any conflict in the evidence as to the events leadin......
  • United States v. Espudo, Case No. 12–CR–236–IEG.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of California)
    • July 19, 2013
    ...reliance on the SCA was reasonable. Acts of Congress are entitled to a strong presumption of constitutionality. United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 416, 96 S.Ct. 820, 46 L.Ed.2d 598 (1976). It was reasonable for the Government to apply for cell site location data under the SCA. There is ......
  • State v. McLucas
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • March 15, 1977
    ...to the law, mentally deficient, or unable in the face of custodial arrest to exercise a free choice." United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 424-25, 96 S.Ct. 820, 828, 46 L.Ed.2d 598. There is no indication in the finding that any promises were made or that there were "more subtle forms of ......
  • People v. James, Cr. 19271
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • March 15, 1977
    ...the case of a defendant who is in police custody at the time his consent to search is requested. (United States v. Watson (1976) supra, 423 U.S. 411, 424--425, 96 S.Ct. 820, 46 L.Ed.2d 598.) Neither Duren nor Reyes presented a custody situation, but for the reasons given above we agree with......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
10 books & journal articles
  • Qualified and Absolute Immunity at Common Law.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 73 Nbr. 6, June 2021
    • June 1, 2021
    ...that a constable can arrest a felon "with or without a warrant, when it is done in good faith"); see also United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 419-20 (1976) (collecting cases and discussing this rule); cf. Shanley v. Wells, 71 Ill. 78, 83 (1873) (holding that this warrantless-felony-arres......
  • Deportation Arrest Warrants.
    • United States
    • February 1, 2021
    ...(109.) See, e.g., Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 327-39 (2001); Wilson, 514 U.S. at 931-36; United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411,418-21 (110.) Virginia v. Moore, 553 U.S. 164, 168-71 (2008) (explaining that if "history has not provided a conclusive answer," the Court will "as......
    • United States
    • Michigan Law Review Vol. 120 Nbr. 8, June 2022
    • June 1, 2022
    ...for pretextual stops where objective probable cause could be found). (207.) U.S. Const. amend. IV. (208.) See United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 419 (1976); see also Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 354 (2001). This power arguably extends to infractions and violations as wel......
  • Bringing defendant before the court
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Federal Criminal Practice
    • April 30, 2022
    ...may arrest the person named or described in the warrant in any public place the officer finds the person. See United States v. Watson , 423 U.S. 411, 417-18 (1976). Whether the place in which a person is arrested is a “public” place depends upon whether the individual has a legitimate expec......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT