United States v. Rabinowitz/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

339 U.S. 56

United States  v.  Rabinowitz

 Argued: Jan. 11, 1950. --- Decided: Feb 20, 1950

Respondent was convicted of selling and of possessing and concealing forged and altered obligations of the United States with intent to defraud. The question presented here is the reasonableness of a search without a search warrant of a place of business consisting of a one-room office, incident to a valid arrest.

On February 1, 1943, a printer who possessed plates for forging 'overprints' on canceled stamps was taken into custody. He disclosed that respondent, a dealer in stamps, was one of the customers to whom he had delivered large numbers of stamps bearing forged overprints. [1] On Saturday, February 6, 1943, with this information concerning respondent and his activities in the hands of Government officers, a postal employee was sent to respondent's place of business to buy stamps bearing overprints. He bought four stamps. On Monday, February 8, the stamps were sent to an expert to determine whether the overprints were genuine. On February 9 the report was received showing the overprints to be forgeries, having been placed upon the stamps after cancellation, and not before as was the Government's practice. On February 11 a further statement was obtained from the printer who had made the overprints. On February 16, 1943, a warrant for the arrest of respondent was obtained.

In 1941 respondent had been convicted and sentenced to three months' imprisonment on a plea of guilty to a two-count indictment charging the alteration of obligations of the United States, that is, of overprinting Government postage stamps, and the possession of a plate from which a similitude of a United States obligation had been printed. Thus, when the warrant for arrest was obtained, the officers had reliable information that respondent was an old offender, that he had sold four forged and altered stamps to an agent of the Government, and that he probably possessed several thousand altered stamps bearing forged overprints. While the warrant of arrest was not put in evidence is contained, as a Government witness testified on cross-examination, authority to arrest for more than the sale of the four stamps; it covered all the Government officers' information. [2]

Armed with this valid warrant for arrest, the Government officers, accompanied by two stamp experts, went to respondent's place of business, a one-room office open to the public. The officers thereupon arrested the respondent, and over his objection searched the desk, safe, and file cabinets in the office for about an hour and a half. They found and seized 573 stamps, on which it was later determined that overprints had been forged, along with some other stamps which were subsequently returned to respondent.

Respondent was indicted on two counts. He was charged in count one with selling four forged and altered stamps, knowing they were forged and altered and with the intent that they be passed as geniune. [3] The second count charged that he did keep in his possession and conceal, with intent to defraud, the 573 forged and altered stamps. [4]

Respondent made timely motions for suppression and to strike the evidence pertaining to the 573 stamps, all of which were eventually denied. Respondent was convicted on both counts after trial before a jury in which he offered no evidence. Relying on Trupiano v. United States, 334 U.S. 699, 68 S.Ct. 1229, 92 L.Ed. 1663, the Court of Appeals, one judge dissenting, reversed on the ground that since the officers had had time in which to procure a search warrant and had failed to do so the search was illegal, and the evidence therefore should have been excluded. 2 Cir., 176 F.2d 732. We granted certiorari to determine the validity of the search because of the question's importance in the administration of the law of search and seizure. 338 U.S. 884, 70 S.Ct. 187.

Were the 573 stamps, the fruits of this search, admissible in evidence? If legally obtained, these stamps were competent evidence to show intent under the first count of the indictment, and they were the very things the possession of which was the crime charged in the second count.

The Fourth Amendment provides: '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.'

It is unreasonable searches that are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 147, 45 S.Ct. 280, 283, 69 L.Ed. 543, 39 A.L.R. 790. It was recognized by the framers of the Constitution that there were reasonable searches for which no warrant was required. The right of the 'people to be secure in their persons' was certainly of as much concern to the framers of the Constitution as the property of the person. Yet no one questions the right, without a search warrant, to search the person after a valid arrest. The right to search the person incident to arrest always has been recognized in this country and in England. Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 392, 34 S.Ct. 341, 344, 58 L.Ed. 652, L.R.A.1915B, 834, Ann.Cas.1915C, 1177. Where one had been placed in the custody of the law by valid action of officers, it was not unreasonable to search him.

Of course, a search without warrant incident to an arrest is dependent initially on a valid arrest. Here the officers had a warrant for respondent's arrest which was, as far as can be ascertained, broad enough to cover the crime of possession charged in the second count, and consequently respondent was properly arrested. Even if the warrant of arrest were not sufficient to authorize the arrest for possession of the stamps, the arrest therefor was valid because the officers had probable cause to believe that a felony was being committed in their very presence. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 156-157, 45 S.Ct. 280, 286, 69 L.Ed. 543, 39 A.L.R. 790.

The arrest was therefore valid in any event, and respondent's person could be lawfully searched. Could the officers search his desk, safe and file cabinets, all within plain sight of the parties, and all located under respondent's immediate control in his one-room office open to the public?

Decisions of this Court have often recognized that there is a permissible area of search beyond the person proper. Thus in Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20, 30, 46 S.Ct. 4, 5, 70 L.Ed. 145, this Court stated:

'The right without a search warrant contemporaneously to search persons lawfully arrested while committing crime and to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime as its fruits or as the means by which it was committed, as well as weapons and other things to effect an escape from custody is not to be doubted.'

The right 'to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime as its fruits or as the means by which it was committed' seems to have stemmed not only from the acknowledged authority to search the person, but also from the longstanding practice of searching for other proofs of guilt within the control of the accused found upon arrest. Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 392, 34 S.Ct. 341, 344, 58 L.Ed. 652, L.R.A.1915B, 834, Ann.Cas.1915C, 1177. It became accepted that the premises where the arrest was made, which premises were under the control of the person arrested and where the crime was being committed, were subject to search without a search warrant. Such a search was not 'unreasonable.' Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20, 30, 46 S.Ct. 4, 5; Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 158, 45 S.Ct. 280, 287; Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 623-624, 6 S.Ct. 524, 528, 29 L.Ed. 746.

In Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192, 48 S.Ct. 74, 72 L.Ed. 231, the officers had a warrant to search for liquor, but the warrant did not describe a certain ledger and invoices pertaining to the operation of the business. The latter were seized during the search of the place of business but were not returned on the search warrant as they were not described therein. The offense of maintaining a nuisance under the National Prohibition Act, 27 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq., was being committed in the room by the arrested bartender in the officers' presence. The search warrant was held not to cover the articles seized, but the arrest for the offense being committed in the presence of the officers was held to authorize the search for and seizure of the ledger and invoices, this Court saying:

'The officers were authorized to arrest for crime being committed in their presence, and they lawfully arrested Birdsall. They had a right without a warrant contemporaneously to search the place in order to find and seize the things used to carry on the criminal enterprise. * * * The closet in which liquor and the ledger were found was used as a part of the saloon. And, if the ledger was not as essential to the maintenance of the establishment as were bottles, liquors and glasses, it was none the less a part of the outfit or equipment actually used to commit the offense. And, while it was not on Birdsall's person at the time of his arrest, it was in his immediate possession and control. The authority of officers to search and seize the things by which the nuisance was being maintained extended to all parts of the premises used for the unlawful purpose.' Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192, 198-199, 48 S.Ct. 74, 76, 77.

We do not understand the Marron case to have been drained of contemporary vitality by Go-Bart Importing Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 344, 51 S.Ct. 153, 75 L.Ed. 374, and United States v. Lefkowitz, 285 U.S. 452, 52 S.Ct. 420, 76 L.Ed. 877, 82 A.L.R. 775. Those cases condemned general exploratory searches, which cannot be undertaken by officers with or without a warrant. In the instant case the search was not general or exploratory for whatever might be turned up. Specificity was the mark of the search and seizure here. There was probable cause to believe that respondent was conducting his business illegally. The search was for stamps overprinted illegally, which were though upon the most reliable information to be in the possession of and concealed by respondent in the very room where he was arrested, over which room he had immediate control and in which he had been selling such stamps unlawfully. Harris v. United States, 331 U.S. 145, 67 S.Ct. 1098, 91 L.Ed. 1399, which has not been overruled, is ample authority for the more limited search here considered. In all the years of our Nation's existence, with special attention to the Prohibition Era, it seems never to have been questioned seriously that a limited search such as here conducted as incident to a lawful arrest was a reasonable search and therefore valid. [5] It has been considered in the same pattern as search of the person after lawful arrest.

What is a reasonable search is not to be determined by any fixed formula. The Constitution does not define what are 'unreasonable' searches and, regrettably, in our discipline we have no ready litmuspaper test. The recurring questions of the reasonableness of searches must find resolution in the facts and circumstances of each case. Go-Bart Importing Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 344, 357, 51 S.Ct. 153, 158, 75 L.Ed. 374. Reasonableness is in the first instance for the District Court to determine. We think the District Court's conclusion that here the search and seizure were reasonable should be sustained because: (1) the search and seizure were incident to a valid arrest; (2) the place of the search was a business room to which the public, including the officers, was invited; (3) the room was small and under the immediate and complete control of respondent; (4) the search did not extend beyond the room used for unlawful purposes; (5) the possession of the forged and altered stamps was a crime, just as it is a crime to possess burglars' tools, lottery tickets or counterfeit money. [6]

Assuming that the officers had time to procure a search warrant, were they bound to do so? We think not, because the search was otherwise reasonable, as previously concluded. In a recent opinion, Trupiano v. United States, 334 U.S. 699, 68 S.Ct. 1229, 92 L.Ed. 1663, this Court first enunciated the requirement that search warrants must be procured when 'practicable' in a case of search incident to arrest. On the occasion of the previous suggestion of such a test, Taylor v. United States, 286 U.S. 1, 52 S.Ct. 466, 76 L.Ed. 951, the Court had been scrupulous to restrict the opinion to the familiar situation there presented. Prohibition agents, having received complaints for about a year, went at 2:30 a.m. to a garage adjacent to a house, flashed a light through a small opening, and then broke in and seized liquor. The Court emphasized that 'No one was within the place, and there was no reason to think otherwise.' Id. 286 U.S. at page 5, 52 S.Ct. at page 467. Lest the holding that such a search of an unoccupied building was unreasonable be thought to have broader significance the Court carefully stated in conclusion: 'This record does not make it necessary for us to discuss the rule in respect of searches in connection with an arrest. No offender was in the garage; the action of the agents had no immediate connection with an arrest. The purpose was to secure evidence to support some future arrest.' Id. 286 U.S. at page 6, 52 S.Ct. at page 467.

A rule of thumb requiring that a search warrant always be procured whenever practicable may be appealing from the vantage point of easy administration. But we cannot agree that this requirement should be crystallized into a sine qua non to the reasonableness of a search. It is fallacious to judge events retrospectively and thus to determine, considering the time element alone, that there was time to procure a search warrant. Whether there was time may well be dependent upon considerations other than the ticking off of minutes or hours. The judgment of the officers as to when to close the trap on a criminal committing a crime in their presence or who they have reasonable cause to believe is committing a felony is not determined solely upon whether there was time to procure a search warrant. Some flexibility will be accorded law officers engaged in daily battle with criminals for whose restraint criminal laws are essential.

It is appropriate to note that the Constitution does not say that the right of the people to be secure in their persons should not be violated without a search warrant if it is practicable for the officers to procure one. The mandate of the Fourth Amendment is that the people shall be secure against unreasonable searches. It is not disputed that there may be reasonable searches, incident to an arrest, without a search warrant. Upon acceptance of this established rule that some authority to search follows from lawfully taking the person into custody, it becomes apparent that such searches turn upon the reasonableness under all the circumstances and not upon the practicability of procuring a search warrant, for the warrant is not required. To the extent that Trupiano v. United States, 334 U.S. 699, 68 S.Ct. 1229, 92 L.Ed. 1663, requires a search warrant solely upon the basis of the practicability of procuring it rather than upon the reasonableness of the search after a lawful arrest, that case is overruled. The relevant test is not whether it is reasonable to procure a search warrant, but whether the search was reasonable. That criterion in turn depends upon the facts and circumstances-the total atmosphere of the case. It is a sufficient precaution that law officers must justify their conduct before courts which have always been, and must be, jealous of the individual's right of privacy within the broad sweep of the Fourth Amendment.

We do not treat additional questions raised by respondent in his brief to support the judgment of the Court of Appeals. We consider it appropriate to dispose of these issues on the basis of the excellent discussion below.

The motion to suppress the evidence was properly denied by the District Court. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.


Mr. Justice DOUGLAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice BLACK, dissenting.


^1  The stamps involved were genuine postage stamps. At certain times the Government has printed the name of a particular state or possession on stamps prior to post office sale. Canceled stamps bearing these overprints have an unusual value for stamp collectors.

^2  'Q. Now, when you went to Mr. Rabinowitz's place of business, all you had with you was a warrant to arrest him in connection with the alleged sale of those four stamps; is that correct? A. And all information contained in the arrest warrant; yes.

'Q. I didn't hear the last part of your answer. A. In our questions a few minutes back, I stated that the four stamps were specifically mentioned in the application for the warrant for arrest, but that there was other information in my possession that was included in that warrant for arrest.

'Q. Well, wasn't the warrant of arrest issued solely on the charge that Mr. Rabinowitz had sold four stamps containing false or altered overprints? Wasn't that what the warrant of arrest was issued for? A. Primarily, yes, but not completely.'

^3  18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) § 268 (1948 Revised Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C.A. § 473).

^4  18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) § 265. All of these stamps are defined by statute as obligations of the United States. 18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) § 261 (1948 Revised Criminal Code, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 8, 472).

^5  When construing state safeguards similar to the Fourth Amendment of the Federal Constitution, state courts have shown little hesitancy in holding that incident to a lawful arrest upon premises within the control of the arrested person, a search of the premises at least to the extent conducted in the instant case is not unreasonable. See, e.g.: Argetakis v. State, 24 Ariz. 599, 212 P. 372; Italiano v. State, 141 Fla. 249, 193 So. 48, certiorari denied, 310 U.S. 640, 60 S.Ct. 1088, 84 L.Ed. 1408; State v. Conner, 59 Idaho 695, 89 P.2d 197; State v. Carenza, 357 Mo. 1172, 212 S.W.2d 743; State ex rel. Wong You v. District Court, 106 Mont. 347, 78 P.2d 353; Davis v. State, 30 Okl.Cr. 61, 234 P. 787: State ex rel. Fong v. Superior Court, 29 Wash.2d 601, 188 P.2d 125, certiorari denied, 337 U.S. 956, 69 S.Ct. 1525; State v. Adams, 103 W.Va. 77, 136 S.E. 703, 51 A.L.R. 407.

^6  There is no dispute that the objects searched for and seized here, having been utilized in perpetrating a crime for which arrest was made, were properly subject to seizure. Such objects are to be distinguished from merely evidentiary materials which may not be taken into custody. United States v. Lefkowitz, supra, 285 U.S. at page 464-466, 52 S.Ct. 420, 423, 76 L.Ed. 877, 82 A.L.R. 775; Gouled v. United States, 255 U.S. 298, 309-311, 41 S.Ct. 261, 265, 65 L.Ed. 647. This is a distinction of importance, for 'limitations upon the fruit to be gathered tend to limit the quest itself. * * *' United States v. Poller, 2 Cir., 43 F.2d 911, 914, 74 A.L.R. 1382.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).