Chimel v. California

United States Supreme Court

395 U.S. 752, 89 S. Ct. 2034, 23 L. Ed. 2d 685 (1969)

 

In this landmark case the Supreme Court narrows the permissible scope of a search incident to a lawful arrest.

 

Mr. Justice Stewart delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            … The relevant facts are essentially undisputed. Late in the afternoon of September 13, 1965, three police officers arrived at the Santa Ana, California, home of the petitioner with a warrant authorizing his arrest for the burglary of a coin shop. The officers knocked on the door, identified themselves to the petitioner’s wife, and asked if they might come inside. She ushered them into the house, where they waited 10 or 15 minutes until the petitioner returned home from work. When the petitioner entered the house, one of the officers handed him the arrest warrant and asked for permission to “look around.” The petitioner objected, but was advised that “on the basis of the lawful arrest,” the officers would nonetheless conduct a search. No search warrant had been issued.

 

            Accompanied by the petitioner’s wife, the officers then looked through the entire three-bedroom house, including the attic, the garage, and a small workshop. In some rooms the search was relatively cursory. In the master bedroom and sewing room, however, the officers directed the petitioner’s wife to open drawers and “to physically move contents of the drawers from side to side so that [they] might view any items that would have come from [the] burglary.” After completing the search, they seized numerous items---primarily coins, but also several medals, tokens, and a few other objects. The entire search took between 45 minutes and an hour.

 

            At the petitioner’s subsequent state trial on two charges of burglary, the items taken from his house were admitted into evidence against him, over his objection that they had been unconstitutionally seized. He was convicted, and the judgments of conviction were affirmed by both the California Court of Appeal, ... and the California Supreme Court. ... Both courts accepted the petitioner’s contention that the arrest warrant was invalid because the supporting affidavit was set out in conclusory terms, but held that since the arresting officers had procured the warrant “in good faith,” and since in any event they had had sufficient information to constitute probable cause for the petitioner’s arrest, that arrest had been lawful. From this conclusion the appellate courts went on to hold that the search of the petitioner’s home had been justified, despite the absence of a search warrant, on the ground that it had been incident to a valid arrest. We granted certiorari in order to consider the petitioner’s substantial constitutional claims. ...

 

            Without deciding the question, we proceed on the hypothesis that the California courts were correct in holding that the arrest of the petitioner was valid under the Constitution. This brings us directly to the question whether the warrantless search of the petitioner’s entire house can be constitutionally justified as incident to that arrest. The decisions of this Court bearing upon that question have been far from consistent, as even the most cursory review makes evident. ...

 

            In 1950 ... came United States v. Rabinowitz, ... the decision upon which California primarily relies in the case now before us. In Rabinowitz, federal authorities had been informed that the defendant was dealing in stamps bearing forged overprints. On the basis of that information they secured a warrant for his arrest, which they executed at his one-room business office. At the time of the arrest, the officers “searched the desk, safe, and file cabinets in the office for about an hour and a half,” ... and seized 573 stamps with forged overprints. The stamps were admitted into evidence at the defendant’s trial, and this Court affirmed his conviction, rejecting the contention that the warrantless search had been unlawful. The Court held that the search in its entirety fell within the principle giving law enforcement authorities “[t]he right ‘to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime....’”  ... The test, said the Court, “is not whether it is reasonable to procure a search warrant, but whether the search was reasonable.”

 

            Rabinowitz has come to stand for the proposition, inter alia, that a warrantless search “incident to a lawful arrest” may generally extend to the area that is considered to be in the “possession” or under the “control” of the person arrested. And it was on the basis of that proposition that the California courts upheld the search of the petitioner’s entire house in this case. That doctrine, however, at least in the broad sense in which it was applied by the California courts in this case, can withstand neither historical nor rational analysis.

 

            Even limited to its own facts, the Rabinowitz decision was, as we have seen, hardly founded on an unimpeachable line of authority. ...

 

            Nor is the rationale by which the State seeks here to sustain the search of the petitioner’s house supported by a reasoned view of the background and purpose of the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Justice Frankfurter wisely pointed out in his Rabinowitz dissent that the Amendment’s proscription of “unreasonable searches and seizures” must be read in light of “the history that gave rise to the words”---a history of “abuses so deeply felt by the Colonies as to be one of the potent causes of the Revolution. ...” ... The Amendment was in large part a reaction to the general warrants and warrantless searches that had so alienated the colonists and had helped speed the movement for independence. In the scheme of the Amendment, therefore, the requirement that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,” plays a crucial part. ...

 

            A similar analysis underlies the “search incident to arrest” principle, and marks its proper extent. When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer’s safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. A gun on a table or in a drawer in front of one who is arrested can be as dangerous to the arresting officer as one concealed in the clothing of the person arrested. There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area “within his immediate control”---construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.

 

            There is no comparable justification, however, for routinely searching any room other than that in which an arrest occurs---or, for that matter, for searching through all the desk drawers or other closed or concealed areas in that room itself. Such searches, in the absence of well-recognized exceptions, may be made only under the authority of a search warrant. ...

 

            It is argued in the present case that it is “reasonable” to search a man’s house when he is arrested in it. But that argument is founded on little more than a subjective view regarding the acceptability of certain sorts of police conduct, and not on considerations relevant to Fourth Amendment interests. Under such an unconfined analysis, Fourth Amendment protection in this area would approach the evaporation point. It is not easy to explain why, for instance, it is less subjectively “reasonable” to search a man’s house when he is arrested on his front lawn---or just down the street---than it is when he happens to be in the house at the time of arrest. ...

 

            The petitioner correctly points out that one result of decisions such as Rabinowitz is to give law enforcement officials the opportunity to engage in searches not justified by probable cause, by the simple expedient of arranging to arrest suspects at home rather than elsewhere. We do not suggest that the petitioner is necessarily correct in his assertion that such a strategy was utilized here, but the fact remains that had he been arrested earlier in the day, at his place of employment rather than at home, no search of his house could have been made without a search warrant. In any event, even apart from the possibility of such police tactics, the general point so forcefully made by Judge Learned Hand in United States v. Kirschenblatt, ... remains:

 

After arresting a man in his house, to rummage at will among his papers in search of whatever will convict him, appears to us to be indistinguishable from what might be done under a general warrant; indeed, the warrant would give more protection, for presumably it must be issued by a magistrate. True, by hypothesis the power would not exist, if the supposed offender were not found on the premises; but it is small consolation to know that one’s papers are safe only so long as one is not at home. ...

 

            Rabinowitz [has] been the subject of critical commentary for many years, and [has] been relied upon less and less in our own decisions. It is time, for the reasons we have stated, to hold that … [it is] no longer to be followed.

 

            Application of sound Fourth Amendment principles to the facts of this case produces a clear result. The search here went far beyond the petitioner’s person and the area from within which he might have obtained either a weapon or something that could have been used as evidence against him. There was no constitutional justification, in the absence of a search warrant, for extending the search beyond that area. The scope of the search was, therefore, “unreasonable” under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and the petitioner’s conviction cannot stand. …

 

 

Mr. Justice Harlan, concurring. ... 

 

 

Mr. Justice White, with whom Mr. Justice Black joins, dissenting.

 

            Few areas of the law have been as subject to shifting constitutional standards over the last 50 years as that of the search “incident to an arrest.” There has been a remarkable instability in this whole area, which has seen at least four major shifts in emphasis. Today’s opinion makes an untimely fifth. In my view, the Court should not abandon the old rule. ...

 

            An arrested man, by definition conscious of the police interest in him, and provided almost immediately with a lawyer and a judge, is in an excellent position to dispute the reasonableness of his arrest and contemporaneous search in a full adversary proceeding. I would uphold the constitutionality of this search contemporaneous with an arrest since there were probable cause both for the search and for the arrest, exigent circumstance involving the removal or destruction of evidence, and a satisfactory opportunity to dispute the issues of probable cause shortly thereafter. In this case, the search was reasonable.