United States v. Harris

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Roosevelt Hudson Harris
LOCATION: Harris’ Residence

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 403 US 573 (1971)
ARGUED: Mar 23, 1971
DECIDED: Jun 28, 1971
GRANTED: Feb 24, 1970

Beatrice Rosenberg - for the petitioner
Steven M. Umin - for the respondent

Facts of the case

A judge issued a warrant to search Roosevelt Harris’ residence based on a federal tax investigator's affidavit. The affidavit stated that Harris had a reputation with the investigator for being a trafficker in illegal liquor, and a local constable located illegal whiskey on Harris’ property. The constable had purchased whiskey from Harris in the past and feared for his life if his name were revealed. When police searched Harris’ residence, they discovered illegal non-tax paid liquor. At trial, the district court admitted the evidence obtained during the search, and Harris was convicted of possession of non-tax paid liquor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the conviction, holding that the investigators affidavit was insufficient to establish probable cause for the search. This made the search illegal and any evidence obtained during the search inadmissible at trial.


Did the investigator’s affidavit provide sufficient probable cause to issue a search warrant?

Media for United States v. Harris

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1971 in United States v. Harris

Warren E. Burger:

-- Number 30, United States against Harris.

Ms. Rosenberg, you may proceed whenever you’re ready.

Beatrice Rosenberg:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This case is here on petition for writ of certiorari to the United Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and it presents what has become a perennial problem of the kind of information you need to get a search warrant and how the courts and magistrates -- magistrates and the Court, I should say, should interpret them.

The particular aspect of the question which this case presents is what law enforcement officers are supposed to do when they get information from someone who has not given information in the past and who is unwilling to let his name be used, but who nevertheless gives information which a responsible law enforcement officers feels he cannot ignore.

Potter Stewart:

Is it clear and do we know in this case that the informant that had not given information in the past?

Beatrice Rosenberg:

Oh, we don’t know, except that considering – there are many, many cases in which reliability is placed on the fact that this -- I have now received information from an informant who has given information in the past.

It’s hard to believe that if he had, an investigator would not have said so.

Potter Stewart:

Well, --

Beatrice Rosenberg:

The absence --

Potter Stewart:

-- if it's not for you, it’s not necessarily hard for me believe that, is it?

Beatrice Rosenberg:


Potter Stewart:

Well, do you think it follows from what we do know on the record in this case that we have here clearly an informant who would not given information in the past?

Beatrice Rosenberg:

Yes, because I may have extremely careless operator, I don’t know, but that -- the fact is that if one goes to the cases since -- particularly since Spinelli, but since McCray against Illinois, it was case after case in which it’s almost a formula.

I have received information from an informant who has in past been proved reliable.

Sometimes with the added statement that he has given specific information about the instances, but it’s hard to believe that of particularly a federal investigator who had had information in the past from this informant would not have so stated.

If in fact he had done so, and certainly at least, we have to take this case because he did not claim to have had information in the past is representing the situation of an informer who had not given information in the past.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Well -- and here, I gather the affidavit identifies the informant as the person, does it?

Beatrice Rosenberg:

And the person, yes.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Sometimes informant is an electronic surveillance, I suppose?

Beatrice Rosenberg:

I don’t think that’s any problem here, not for the nature of the affidavit.

What would you say the direct to this informer, you haven't gotten an affidavit from him --?

Beatrice Rosenberg:

Well, I was just about to say that and the particular problem comes here in relation to someone who has some connection with the defendant because he purchased liquor for him.

But the problem as the brief amicus in this case shows can come about in all kinds of ways.

The problem of the first informant is a very important problem in law enforcement because it can come at the one end from a completely responsible eminent citizen who happens to witness a crime.

It can come from ordinary citizens who simply feel they have seen something that causes them to make reports.

Police get information -- pardon?

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

I just wonder, what it just means, found this person to be a prudent person, what does that mean?

Beatrice Rosenberg:

Well, Your Honor, I think in context, it means credible.

And the Court says, you pay no attention to it at all, but it seems to me, the opinion below in that respect, in that little respect is an example of how not read search warrants.