United States v. Jacobsen

Facts of the Case

Defendants were arrested after a federal agent examined and tested their damaged package on a private freight carrier. They were indicted for the crime of possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute. Defendants moved to suppress the evidence on grounds that it was the product of an illegal search and seizure. The motion was denied. They were convicted but the ruling was reversed on appeal.


Does the Fourth Amendment prohibit the warrantless testing of the suspicious powder?


No. Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the decision of the 7-2 majority. The Court held that the initial inspection by the DEA agent did not violate the Fourth Amendment because it remained within the scope of the previous search conducted by private agents. Once the agents gained enough information about the package to believe it contained contraband, the warrantless seizure of the package and its contents was not unreasonable. The Court also held that the test did not compromise any legitimate privacy interest. Either the test would be positive, which meant that the respondents had no legal right to posses the substance, or the test would be negative, which meant the agents knew nothing more about the powder than they knew after the visual examination.Justice Byron R. White concurred in part and concurred in the judgment. He argued that the Court unnecessarily dwelled on the fact that the DEA agent’s initial inspection of the contraband was allowed by the Fourth Amendment. Since the Court of Appeals agreed that the evidence was in plain view when the agents arrived, there was no reason for the Court to consider the issue. He also disagreed with the Court’s analysis and argued that the government cannot duplicate a private search without a warrant.Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote a dissent where he argued that the condition in which the DEA agents found the contents of the box was not clear enough to make a ruling. If the contents of the box were in plain view, the agents did not need a warrant, but if the contents were not, the agents required a warrant to replicate the private search. He also argued that the Court erred by not taking into account the context in which agents find an item as evidence of an expectation of privacy that the search violates. In this case, the packaging clearly indicated that the substance was illegal. Therefore the respondents had no expectation of privacy, and the search was legal.

Case Information

  • Citation: 466 US 109 (1984)
  • Argued: Dec 7, 1983
  • Decided Apr 2, 1984Granted: Mar 7, 1983