Illinois v. Gates

United States Supreme Court

462 U.S. 213; 103 S. Ct. 2317; 76 L. Ed. 2d 527 (1983)

 

Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

                Respondents Lance and Susan Gates were indicted for violation of state drug laws after police officers, executing a search warrant, discovered marijuana and other contraband in the automobile and home. Prior to trial the Gateses moved to suppress evidence seized during the search. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of lower state courts granting the motion. It held that the affidavit submitted in support of the State’s application for a warrant to search the Gateses’ property was inadequate under this Court’s decisions in Agular v. Texas ... (1964) and Spinelli v. United States ... (1969). ...

 

                We now turn to the question presented in the State’s original petition for certiorari, which requires us to decide whether respondents’ rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated by the search of their car and house. A chronological statement of events usefully introduces the issues at stake. Bloomingdale, Ill., is a suburb of Chicago located in DuPage County. On May 3, 1978, the Bloomingdale Police Department received by mail an anonymous handwritten letter which read as follows:

 

This letter is to inform you that you have a couple in your town who strictly make their living on selling drugs. They are Sue and Lance Gates, they live on Greenway, off Bloomingdale Rd. in the condominiums. Most of their buys are done in Florida. Sue his wife drives their car to Florida, where she leaves it to be loaded up with drugs, then Lance flys down and drives it back. Sue flys back after she drops the car off in Florida. May 3 she is driving down there again and Lance will be flying down in a few days to drive it back. At the time Lance drives the car back he has the trunk loaded with over $100,000.00 in drugs. Presently, they have over $100,000.00 worth of drugs in their basement. They brag about the fact they never have to work, and make their entire living on pushers.

 

I guarantee if you watch them carefully you will make a big catch. They are friends with some big drug dealers, who visit their house often.

 

               

The letter was referred by the Chief of Police of the Bloomingdale Police Department to Detective Mader, who decided to pursue the tip. Mader learned, from the office of the Illinois Secretary of State, that an Illinois driver’s license had been issued to one Lance Gates, residing at a stated address in Bloomingdale. He contacted a confidential informant, whose examination of certain financial records revealed a more recent address for the Gates, and he also learned from a police officer assigned to O’Hare Airport that “L. Gates” had made a reservation on Eastern Airlines flight 245 to West Palm Beach, Fla., scheduled to depart from Chicago on May 5 at 4:15 p.m.

 

                Mader then made arrangements with an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration for surveillance of the May 5 Eastern Airlines flight. The agent later reported to Mader that Gates had boarded the flight, and that federal agents in Florida had observed him arrive in West Palm Beach and take a taxi to the nearby Holiday Inn. They also reported that Gates went to a room registered to one Susan Gates and that, at 7:00 a.m. the next morning, Gates and an unidentified woman left the motel in a Mercury bearing Illinois license plates and drove northbound on an interstate frequently used by travelers to the Chicago area. In addition, the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agent informed Mader that the license plate number on the Mercury was registered to a Hornet station wagon owned by Gates.

 

                Mader signed an affidavit setting forth the foregoing facts, and submitted it to a judge of the Circuit Court of DuPage County, together with a copy of the anonymous letter. The judge of that court thereupon issued a search warrant for the Gateses’ residence and for their automobile. The judge, in deciding to issue the warrant, could have determined that the modus operandi of the Gateses had been substantially corroborated.

 

                At 5:15 a.m. on March 7th, only 36 hours after he had flown out of Chicago, Lance Gates, and his wife, returned to their home in Bloomingdale, driving the car in which they had left West Palm Beach some 22 hours earlier. The Bloomingdale police were awaiting them, searched the trunk of the Mercury, and uncovered approximately 350 pounds of marijuana. A search of the Gateses’ home revealed marijuana, weapons, and other contraband. The Illinois Circuit Court ordered suppression of all these items, on the ground that the affidavit submitted to the Circuit Judge failed to support the necessary determination of probable cause to believe that the Gateses’ automobile and home contained the contraband in question. This decision was affirmed in turn by the Illinois Appellate Court and by a divided vote of the Supreme Court of Illinois. ...

 

                The Illinois Supreme Court concluded---and we are inclined to agree---that, standing alone, the anonymous letter sent to the Bloomingdale Police Department would not provide the basis for a magistrate’s determination that there was probable cause to believe contraband would be found in the Gateses’ car and home. The letter provides virtually nothing from which one might conclude that its author is either honest or his information reliable; likewise, the letter gives absolutely no indication of the basis for the writer’s predictions regarding the Gateses’ criminal activities. Something more was required, then, before a magistrate could conclude that there was probable cause to believe that contraband would be found in the Gateses’ home and car. ...

 

                The Illinois Supreme Court also properly recognized that Detective Mader’s affidavit might be capable of supplementing the anonymous letter with information sufficient to permit a determination of probable cause. ... In holding that the affidavit in fact did not contain sufficient additional information to sustain a determination of probable cause, the Illinois court applied a “two-pronged test,” derived from our decision in Spinelli v. United States. ... The Illinois Supreme Court, like some others, apparently understood Spinelli as requiring that the anonymous letter satisfy each of two independent requirements before it could be relied on. According to this view, the letter, as supplemented by Mader’s affidavit, first had to adequately reveal the “basis of knowledge” of the letter writer---the particular means by which he came by the information given in his report. Second, it had to provide facts sufficiently establishing either the “veracity” of the affiant’s informant, or, alternatively, the “reliability” of the informant’s report in this particular case.

 

                The Illinois court, alluding to an elaborate set of legal rules that have developed among various lower courts to enforce the “two-pronged test,” found that the test had not been satisfied. First, the “veracity” prong was not satisfied because, “there was simply no basis [for] ... conclud[ing] that the anonymous person [who wrote the letter to the Bloomingdale Police Department] was credible.” The court indicated that corroboration by police of details contained in the letter might never satisfy the “veracity” prong, and in any event, could not do so if, as in the present case, only “innocent” details are corroborated. ... In addition, the letter gave no indication of the basis of its writer’s knowledge of the Gateses’ activities. The Illinois court understood Spinelli as permitting the detail contained in a tip to be used to infer that the informant had a reliable basis for his statements, but it thought that the anonymous letter failed to provide sufficient detail to permit such an inference. Thus, it concluded that no showing of probable cause had been made.

 

                We agree with the Illinois Supreme Court that an informant’s “veracity,” “reliability” and “basis of knowledge” are all highly relevant in determining the value of his report. We do not agree, however, that these elements should be understood as entirely separate and independent requirements to be rigidly exacted in every case, which the opinion of the Supreme Court of Illinois would imply. Rather, as detailed below, they should be understood simply as closely intertwined issues that may usefully illuminate the commonsense, practical question whether there is “probable cause” to believe that contraband or evidence is located in a particular place.

 

                This totality-of-the-circumstances approach is far more consistent with our prior treatment of probable cause than is any rigid demand that specific “tests” be satisfied by every informant’s tip. Perhaps the central teaching of our decisions bearing on the probable cause standard is that it is a “practical, nontechnical conception.” ... “In dealing with probable cause, ... as the very name implies, we deal with probabilities. These are not technical, they are the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.” ...

 

                [P]robable cause is a fluid concept---turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts---not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules. Informants’ tips doubtless come in many shapes and sizes from many different types of persons. “Informants’ tips, like all other clues and evidence coming to a policeman on the scene, may vary greatly in their value and reliability.” Rigid legal rules are ill-suited to an area of such diversity. “One simple rule will not cover every situation.”

 

Moreover, the “two-pronged test” directs analysis into two largely independent channels---the informant’s “veracity” or “reliability” and his “basis of knowledge.” There are persuasive arguments against according these two elements such independent status. Instead, they are better understood as relevant considerations in the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis that traditionally has guided probable cause determinations: a deficiency in one may be compensated for, in determining the overall reliability of a tip, by a strong showing as to the other, or by some other indicia of reliability. ...

 

                If, for example, a particular informant is known for the unusual reliability of his predictions of certain types of criminal activities in a locality, his failure, in a particular case, to thoroughly set forth the basis of his knowledge surely should not serve as an absolute bar to a finding of probable cause based on his tip. ... Likewise, if an unquestionably honest citizen comes forward with a report of criminal activity---which if fabricated would subject him to criminal liability---we have found rigorous scrutiny of the basis of his knowledge unnecessary. ... Conversely, even if we entertain some doubt as to an informant’s motives, his explicit and detailed description of alleged wrongdoing, along with a statement that the event was observed firsthand, entitles his tip to greater weight than might otherwise be the case.  Unlike a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis, which permits a balanced assessment of the relative weights of all the various indicia of reliability (and unreliability) attending an informant’s tip, the “two-pronged test” has encouraged an excessively technical dissection of informants’ tips, with undue attention being focused on isolated issues that cannot sensibly be divorced from the other facts presented to the magistrate.

 

                As early as Locke v. United States ... (1813), Chief Justice Marshall observed, in a closely related context, that “the term `probable cause,’ according to its usual acceptation, means less than evidence which would justify condemnation. ... It imports a seizure made under circumstances which warrant suspicion.” More recently, we said that “the quanta ... of proof” appropriate in ordinary judicial proceedings are inapplicable to the decision to issue a warrant. ... Finely tuned standards such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt or by a preponderance of the evidence, useful in formal trials, have no place in the magistrate’s decision. While an effort to fix some general, numerically precise degree of certainty corresponding to “probable cause” may not be helpful, it is clear that “only the probability, and not a prima facie showing, of criminal activity is the standard of probable cause.” ...

 

                We also have recognized that affidavits “are normally drafted by nonlawyers in the midst and haste of a criminal investigation. Technical requirements of elaborate specificity once exacted under common law pleading have no proper place in this area.” ... Likewise, search and arrest warrants long have been issued by persons who were neither lawyers or judges, and who certainly do not remain abreast of each judicial refinement of the nature of “probable cause.”

 

... The rigorous inquiry into the Spinelli prongs and the complex superstructure of evidentiary and analytical rules that some have seen implicit in our Spinelli decision, cannot be reconciled with the fact that many warrants are---quite properly, ... issued on the basis of nontechnical common-sense judgments of laymen applying a standard less demanding than those used in more formal legal proceedings. ...

 

                Similarly, we have repeatedly said that after-the-fact scrutiny by courts of the sufficiency of an affidavit should not take the form of de novo review. A magistrate’s determination of probable cause should be paid great deference by reviewing courts.” ...

 

                If the affidavits submitted by police officers are subjected to the type of scrutiny some courts have deemed appropriate, police might well resort to warrantless searches, with the hope of relying on consent or some other exception to the warrant clause that might develop at the time of the search. In addition, the possession of a warrant by officers conducting an arrest or search greatly reduces the perception of unlawful or intrusive police conduct, by assuring “the individual whose property is searched or seized of the lawful authority of the executing officer, his need to search, and the limits of his power to search.” ... Reflecting this preference for the warrant process, the traditional standard for review of an issuing magistrate’s probable cause determination has been that so long as the magistrate has a “substantial basis for ... conclud[ing]” that a search would uncover evidence of wrongdoing, the Fourth Amendment requires no more. ... We think reaffirmation of this standard better serves the purpose of encouraging recourse to the warrant procedure and is more consistent with our traditional deference to the probable cause determinations of magistrates than is the “two-pronged test.”

 

                Finally, the direction taken by decisions following Spinelli poorly serves “[t]he most basic function of any government”: “to provide for the security of the individual and of his property.” ... The strictures that inevitably accompany the “two-pronged test” cannot avoid seriously impeding the task of law enforcement. ... ... Ordinary citizens, like ordinary witnesses, generally do not provide extensive recitations of the basis of their everyday observations. Likewise, as the Illinois Supreme Court observed in this case, the veracity of persons supplying anonymous tips is by hypothesis largely unknown and unknowable. As a result, anonymous tips seldom could survive a rigorous application of either of the Spinelli prongs. Yet, such tips, particularly when supplemented by independent police investigation, frequently contribute to the solution of otherwise “perfect crimes.” While a conscientious assessment of the basis for crediting such tips is required by the Fourth Amendment, a standard that leaves virtually no place for anonymous citizen informants is not.

                For all these reasons, we conclude that it is wiser to abandon the “two-pronged test” established by our decisions in Agular and Spinelli. In its place we reaffirm the totality of the circumstances analysis that traditionally has informed probable cause determinations. ... We are convinced that this flexible, easily applied standard will better achieve the accommodation of public and private interests that the Fourth Amendment requires than does the approach that has developed from Agular and Spinelli. ...

 

 

Justice White, concurring in the judgment. ...

 

 

Justice Brennan, with whom Justice Marshall joins, dissenting.

 

                ... In recognition of the judiciary’s role as the only effective guardian of Fourth Amendment rights, this Court has developed over the last half century a set of coherent rules governing a magistrate’s consideration of a warrant application and the showings that are necessary to support a finding of probable cause. We start with the proposition that a neutral and detached magistrate, and not the police, should determine whether there is probable cause to support the issuance of a warrant. ...

 

                In order to emphasize the magistrate’s role as an independent arbiter of probable cause and to insure that searches and seizures are not effected on less than probable cause, the Court has insisted that police officers provide magistrates with the underlying facts and circumstances that support the officer’s conclusions. ...

 

                To suggest that anonymous informants’ tips are subject to the tests established by Agular and Spinelli is not to suggest that they can never provide a basis for a finding of probable cause. It is conceivable that police corroboration of the details of the tip might establish the reliability of the informant under Agular’s veracity prong, as refined in Spinelli, and that the details in the tip might be sufficient to qualify under the “self-verifying detail” test established by Spinelli as a means of satisfying Agular’s basis of knowledge prong. The Agular and Spinelli tests must be applied to anonymous informants’ tips, however, if we are to continue to insure that findings of probable cause, and attendant intrusions, are based on information provided by an honest or credible person who has acquired the information in a reliable way. ...

 

                In light of the important purposes served by Agular and Spinelli, I would not reject the standards they establish. If anything, I simply would make more clear that Spinelli, properly understood, does not depart in any fundamental way from the test established by Agular. For reasons I shall next state, I do not find persuasive the Court’s justifications for rejecting the test established by Agular and refined by Spinelli. ...

 

                ... [O]ne can concede that probable cause is a “practical, nontechnical” concept without betraying the values that Agular and Spinelli reflect. ... Agular and Spinelli require the police to provide magistrates with certain crucial information. They also provide structure for magistrates’ probable cause inquiries. In so doing, Agular and Spinelli preserve the role of magistrates as independent arbiters of probable cause determinations, and advance the substantive value of precluding findings of probable cause, and attendant intrusions, based on anything less than information from an honest or credible person who has acquired his information in a reliable way. Neither the standards nor their effects are inconsistent with a “practical, nontechnical” conception of probable cause. Once a magistrate has determined that he has information before him that he can reasonably say has been obtained in a reliable way by a credible person, he has ample room to use his common sense and to apply a practical, nontechnical conception of probable cause. ...

 

                The Court also insists that the Agular-Spinelli standards must be abandoned because they are inconsistent with the fact that non-lawyers frequently serve as magistrates. ... To the contrary, the standards help to structure probable cause inquiries and, properly interpreted, may actually help a non-lawyer magistrate in making a probable cause determination. Moreover, the Agular and Spinelli tests are not inconsistent with deference to magistrates’ determinations of probable cause. ...

 

                At the heart of the Court’s decision to abandon Agular and Spinelli appears to be its belief that “the direction taken by decisions following Spinelli poorly serves ‘the most basic function of any government: to provide for the security of the individual and of his property.’” ... This conclusion rests on the judgment that Agular and Spinelli “seriously imped[e] the task of law enforcement,” ... and render anonymous tips valueless in police work. ... Surely, the Court overstates its case. ... But of particular concern to all Americans must be that the Court gives virtually no consideration to the value of insuring that findings of probable cause are based on information that a magistrate can reasonably say has been obtained in a reliable way by an honest or credible person. I share Justice White’s fear that the court’s rejection of Agular and Spinelli and its adoption of a new totality of the circumstances test, “may foretell an evisceration of the probable cause standard. ...” ...

 

                The Court’s complete failure to provide any persuasive reason for rejecting Agular and Spinelli doubtlessly reflects impatience with what it perceives to be “overly technical” rules governing searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Words such as “practical,” “nontechnical,” and “commonsense,” as used in the Court’s opinion, are but code words for an overly permissive attitude toward police practices in derogation of the rights secured by the Fourth Amendment. Everyone shares the Court’s concern over the horror of drug trafficking, but under our Constitution only measures consistent with the Fourth Amendment may be employed by government to cure this evil. We must be ever mindful of Justice Stewart’s admonition in Coolidge v. New Hampshire ... (1971), that “[i]n times of unrest, whether caused by crime or racial conflict or fear of internal subversion, this basic law and the values that it represents may appear unrealistic or `extravagant’ to some. But the values were those of the authors of our fundamental constitutional concepts.” ...

 

                Rights secured by the Fourth Amendment are particularly difficult to protect because their “advocates are usually criminals.” But the rules “we fashion [are] for the innocent and guilty alike.” ... [T]oday’s decision threatens to “obliterate one of the most fundamental distinctions between our form of government, where officers are under the law, and the police-state where they are the law.” ...

 

Justice Stevens, with whom Justice Brennan joins, dissenting.

 

                The fact that Lance and Sue Gates made a 22-hour nonstop drive from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Bloomingdale, Illinois, only a few hours after Lance had flown to Florida provided persuasive evidence that they were engaged in illicit activity. The fact, however, was not known to the magistrate when he issued the warrant to search the home.

 

                What the magistrate did know at the time was that the anonymous informant had not been completely accurate in his or her predictions. The informant had indicated that “Sue drives their car to Florida where she leaves it to be loaded up with drugs. ... She flies back after she drops the car off in Florida.” ... Yet Detective Mader’s affidavit reported that she “left the West Palm Beach area driving the Mercury northbound.” ...

 

                The discrepancy between the informant’s predictions and the facts known to Detective Mader is significant for three reasons. First, it cast doubt on the informant’s hypothesis that the Gateses already had “over $100,000 worth of drugs in their basement.” ... The informant had predicted an itinerary that always kept one spouse in Bloomingdale, suggesting that the Gateses did not want to leave their home unguarded because something valuable was hidden within. That inference obviously could not be drawn when it was known that the pair was actually together over a thousand miles from home.

 

                Second, the discrepancy made the Gateses’ conduct seem substantially less unusual than the informant had predicted it would be. It would have been odd if, as predicted, Sue had driven down to Florida on Wednesday, left the car, and flown right back to Illinois. But the mere facts that Sue was in West Palm Beach with the car, that she was joined by her husband at the Holiday Inn on Friday, and that the couple drove north together the next morning are neither unusual nor probative of criminal activity.

 

                Third, the fact that the anonymous letter contained a material mistake undermines the reasonableness of relying on it as a basis for making a forcible entry into a private home.

 

                Of course, the activities in this case did not stop when the magistrate issued the warrant. The Gateses drove all night to Bloomingdale, the officers searched the car and found 400 pounds of marijuana, and then they searched the house. However, none of these subsequent events may be considered in evaluating the warrant, and the search of the house was legal only if the warrant was valid. ... I cannot accept the Court’s casual conclusion that, before the Gateses arrived in Bloomingdale, there was probable cause to justify a valid entry and search of a private home. No one knows who the informant in this case was, or what motivated him or her to write the note. Given that the note’s predictions were faulty in one significant respect, and were corroborated by nothing except ordinary innocent activity, I must surmise that the Court’s evaluation of the warrant’s validity has been colored by subsequent events. ...