Wong Sun v. United States

Decision Date14 January 1963
Docket NumberNo. 36,36
Citation371 U.S. 471,9 L.Ed.2d 441,83 S.Ct. 407
PartiesWONG SUN and James Wah Toy, Petitioners, v. UNITED STATES. Re
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Edward Bennett Williams, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

J. William Doolittle, Asst. to Sol. Gen., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioners were tried without a jury in the District Court for the Northern District of California under a two-count indictment for violation of the Federal Narcotics Laws, 21 U.S.C. § 174, 21 U.S.C.A. § 174.1 They were acquitted under the first count which charged a conspiracy, but convicted under the second count which charged the substantive offense of fraudulent and knowing transportation and concealment of illegally imported heroin. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, one judge dissenting, affirmed the convictions. 288 F.2d 366. We granted certiorari. 368 U.S. 817, 82 S.Ct. 75, 7 L.Ed.2d 23. We heard argument in the 1961 Term and reargument this Term. 370 U.S. 908, 82 S.Ct. 1254, 8 L.Ed.2d 403.

About 2 a.m. on the morning of June 4, 1959, federal narcotics agents in San Francisco, after having had one Hom Way under surveillance for six weeks, arrested him and found heroin in his possession. Hom Way, who had not before been an informant, stated after his arrest that he had bought an ounce of heroin the night before from one known to him only as 'Blackie Toy,' proprietor of a laundry on Leavenworth Street.

About 6 a.m. that morning six or seven federal agents went to a laundry at 1733 Leavenworth Street. The sign above the door of this establishment said 'Oye's Laundry.' It was operated by the petitioner James Wah Toy. There is, however, nothing in the record which identifies James Wah Toy and 'Blackie Toy' as the same person. The other federal officers remained nearby out of sight while Agent Alton Wong, who was of Chinese ancestery, rang the bell. When petitioner Toy appeared and opened the door, Agent Wong told him that he was calling for laundry and dry cleaning. Toy replied that he didn't open until 8 o'clock and told the agent to come back at that time. Toy started to close the door. Agent Wong thereupon took his badge from his pocket and said, 'I am a federal narcotics agent.' Toy immediately 'slammed the door and started running' down the hallway through the laundry to his living quarters at the back where his wife and child were sleeping in a bedroom. Agent Wong and the other federal officers broke open the door and followed Toy down the hallway to the living quarters and into the bedroom. Toy reached into a nightstand drawer. Agent Wong thereupon drew his pistol, pulled Toy's hand out of the drawer, placed him under arrest and handcuffed him. There was nothing in the drawer and a search of the premises uncovered no narcotics.

One of the agents said to Toy '* * * (Hom Way) says he got narcotics from you.' Toy responded, 'No, I haven't been selling any narcotics at all. However, I do know somebody who has.' When asked who that was, Toy said, 'I only know him as Johnny. I don't know his last name.' However, Toy described a house on Eleventh Avenue where he said Johnny lived; he also described a bedroom in the house where he said 'Johnny kept about a piece'2 of heroin, and where he and Johnny had smoked some of the drug the night before. The agents left immediately for Eleventh Avenue and located the house. They entered and found one Johnny Yee in the bedroom. After a discussion with the agents, Yee took from a bureau drawer several tubes containing in all just less than one ounce of heroin, and surrendered them. Within the hour Yee and Toy were taken to the Office of the Bureau of Narcotics. Yee there stated that the heroin had been brought to him some four days earlier by petitioner Toy and another Chinese known to him only as 'Sea Dog.'

Toy was questioned as to the identity of 'Sea Dog' and said that 'Sea Dog' was Wong Sun. Some agents, including Agent Alton Wong, took Toy to Wong Sun's neighborhood where Toy pointed out a multifamily dwelling where he said Wong Sun lived. Agent Wong rang a downstairs door bell and a buzzer sounded, opening the door. The officer identified himself as a narcotics agent to a woman on the landing and asked 'for Mr. Wong.' The woman was the wife of petitioner Wong Sun. She said that Wong Sun was 'in the back room sleeping.' Alton Wong and some six other officers climbed the stairs and entered the apartment. One of the officers went into the back room and brought petitioner Wong Sun from the bedroom in handcuffs. A thorough search of the apartment followed, but no narcotics were discovered.

Petitioner Toy and Johnny Yee were arraigned before a United States Commissioner on June 4 on a complaint charging a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 174, 21 U.S.C.A. § 174. Later that day, each was released on his own recognizance. Petitioner Wong Sun was arraigned on a similar complaint filed the next day and was also released on his own recognizance.3 Within a few days, both petitioners and Yee were interrogated at the office of the Narcotics Bureau by Agent William Wong, also of Chinese ancestry.4 The agent advised each of the three of his right to withhold information which might be used against him, and stated to each that he was entitled to the advice of counsel, though it does not appear that any attorney was present during the questioning of any of the three. The officer also explained to each that no promises or offers of immunity or leniency were being or could be made.

The agent interrogated each of the three separately. After each had been interrogated the agent prepared a statement in English from rough notes. The agent read petitioner Toy's statement to him in English and interpreted certain portions of it for him in Chinese. Toy also read the statement in English aloud to the agent, said there were corrections to be made, and made the corrections in his own hand. Toy would not sign the statement, however; in the agent's words 'he wanted to know first if the other persons involved in the case had signed theirs.' Wong Sun had considerable difficulty understanding the statement in English and the agent restated its substance in Chinese. Wong Sun refused to sign the statement although he admitted the accuracy of its contents.5

Hom Way did not testify at petitioners' trial. The Government offered Johnny Yee as its principal witness but excused him after he invoked the privilege against self-incrimination and flatly repudiated the statement he had given to Agent William Wong. That statement was not offered in evidence nor was any testimony elicited from him identifying either petitioner as the source of the heroin in his possession, or otherwise tending to support the charges against the petitioners.

The statute expressly provides that proof of the accused's possession of the drug will support a conviction under the statute unless the accused satisfactorily explains the possession. The Government's evidence tending to prove the petitioners' possession (the petitioners offered no exculpatory testimony) consisted of four items which the trial court admitted over timely objections that they were inadmissible as 'fruits' of unlawful arrests or of attendant searches: (1) the statements made orally by petitioner Toy in his bedroom at the time of his arrest; (2) the heroin surrendered to the agents by Johnny Yee; (3) petitioner Toy's pretrial unsigned statement; and (4) petitioner Wong Sun's similar statement. The dispute below and here has centered around the correctness of the rulings of the trial judge allowing these items in evidence.

The Court of Appeals held that the arrests of both petitioners were illegal because not based on "probable cause' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment' nor 'reasonable grounds' within the meaning of the Narcotic Control Act of 1956.6 The court said as to Toy's arrest, 'There is no showing in this case that the agent knew Hom Way to be reliable,' and, furthermore, found 'nothing in the circumstances occurring at Toy's premises that would provide sufficient justification for his arrest without a warrant.' 288 F.2d at 369, 370. As to Wong Sun's arrest, the court said 'there is no showing that Johnnie Yee was a reliable informer.' The Court of Appeals nevertheless held that the four items of proof were not the 'fruits' of the illegal arrests and that they were therefore properly admitted in evidence.

The Court of Appeals rejected two additional contentions of the petitioners. The first was that there was insufficient evidence to corroborate the petitioners' unsigned admissions of possession of narcotics. The court held that the narcotics in evidence surrendered by Johnny Yee, together with Toy's statements in his bedroom at the time of arrest corroborated petitioners' admissions. The second contention was that the confessions were inadmissible because they were not signed. The Court of Appeals held on this point that the petitioners were not prejudiced, since the agent might properly have testified to the substance of the conversations which produced the statements.

We believe that significant differences between the cases of the two petitioners require separate discussion of each. We shall first consider the case of petitioner Toy.


The Court of Appeals found there was neither reasonable grounds nor probable cause for Toy's arrest. Giving due weight to that finding, we think it is amply justified by the facts clearly shown on this record. It is basic that an arrest with or without a warrant must stand upon firmer ground than mere suspicion, see Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 101, 80 S.Ct. 168, 170, 4 L.Ed.2d 134, though the arresting officer need not have in hand evidence which would suffice to convict. The quantum of information which constitutes probable cause—evidence which would 'warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief' that a felony has been committed, Carroll v....

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