Florida v. White

PETITIONER: Florida
RESPONDENT: White
LOCATION: Alden's Workplace

DOCKET NO.: 98-223
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court

CITATION: 526 US 559 (1999)
ARGUED: Mar 23, 1999
DECIDED: May 17, 1999

ADVOCATES:
Carolyn M. Snurkowski - Argued the cause for the petitioner
David P. Gauldin - Argued the cause for the respondent
Malcolm L. Stewart - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court

Facts of the case

Two months after officers observed Tyvessel Tyvorus White using his car to deliver cocaine, he was arrested at his workplace on unrelated charges. At the same time, the arresting officers seized his car, without securing a warrant, because they believed that it was subject to forfeiture under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act. During a subsequent inventory search, the police discovered cocaine in the car. White was then charged with possession of a controlled substance in violation of Florida law. At White's trial on the drug charge, he moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the search, arguing that the car's warrantless seizure violated the Fourth Amendment, thereby making the cocaine the "fruit of the poisonous tree." After the jury returned a guilty verdict, the court denied the motion. On appeal, the Florida First District Court of Appeal affirmed. The court also certified to the Florida Supreme Court the question whether, absent exigent circumstances, a warrantless seizure of an automobile under the Act violated the Fourth Amendment. The Florida Supreme Court answered that the warrantless seizure did violate the Fourth Amendment, quashed the lower court opinion, and remanded. The court reasoned that although the police developed probable cause to believe a violation of the Act had occurred, this alone did not justify a warrantless seizure.

Question

Does the Fourth Amendment require the police to obtain a warrant before seizing an automobile from a public place when they have probable cause to believe that it is forfeitable contraband under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act?

Media for Florida v. White

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1999 in Florida v. White

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 17, 1999 in Florida v. White

Clarence Thomas:

The second case I have to announce is Florida versus White, No. 98-223.

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Florida.

After the police arrested respondent on charges unrelated to this case, they seized his car because they believe that it was forfeitable under Florida's Contraband Forfeiture Act.

They did not secure warrant authorizing the seizure.

During a subsequent inventory search the police discovered cocaine in the car.

As a result, respondent was charged with drug possession.

Respondent moved to suppress the cocaine on the grounds that the warrantless seizure of the car violated the Fourth Amendment.

Although the Trial and Appellate Courts rejected this argument, the Supreme Court held that, absent exigent circumstances, a warrantless seizure of an automobile under the Forfeiture Act violated the Fourth Amendment.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today we reverse.

Over 70 years ago in Carroll verus United States we held that the Fourth Amendment does not require police to obtain a warrant before searching a car for and seizing contraband.

Our holding was rooted in federal law enforcement practice at the time that the Fourth Amendment was adopted.

Specifically, we noted that early Congresses authorized federal officers to conduct warrantless searches of ships and to seize concealed goods subject to duties.

The principles underlying the rule in Carroll and the founding-era statutes upon which they were based support our conclusion that the warrantless seizure of respondent's car did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Although the police lacked probable cause to believe that respondent's car contained contraband, they certainly had probable cause to believe that the vehicle itself was contraband under Florida law.

Recognition of the need to seize readily movable contraband before it is spirited away, undoubtedly underlies the early federal laws relied upon in Carroll.

This need is equally weighty when the automobile, as opposed to its contents, is the contraband that the police seek to secure.

In addition, our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has consistently given police greater latitude in exercising their duties in public places.

Indeed, the facts of this case are nearly indistinguishable from those in G. M. Leasing Corp. versus the United States.

In that 1977 case we held that federal agents did not violate the Fourth Amendment by failing to secure a warrant prior to seizing automobiles in partial satisfaction of income tax assessments.

Therefore, based on the relevant history and our prior precedent, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment did not require a warrant to seize respondent's automobile in these circumstances.

Justice Souter has filed a concurring opinion which Justice Breyer has joined; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Ginsburg has joined.