United States v. Jacobsen

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Bradley Thomas Jacobsen and Donna Marie Jacobsen
LOCATION: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

DOCKET NO.: 82-1167
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 466 US 109 (1984)
ARGUED: Dec 07, 1983
DECIDED: Apr 02, 1984
GRANTED: Mar 07, 1983

David A. Strauss - on behalf of the Petitioner
Mark W. Peterson - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

On May 1, 1981, pursuant to company procedure, employees at the FedEx office at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport opened a package that had been damaged by a forklift. The package was an ordinary-looking cardboard box wrapped in brown paper. Inside, they found a tube that contained four plastic bags inside one another, and the innermost bag contained a white substance. They notified the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and replaced the contents of the box. When the DEA agents arrived, they removed a small amount of the white powder to conduct a field test that determined the powder was cocaine. The DEA agents obtained a warrant for the address on the package and searched the location, where they arrested Bradley Thomas Jacobsen and Donna Marie Jacobsen for possession of an illegal substance with intent to distribute.

After they were indicted, the respondents filed a motion to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the warrant was the product of an illegal search. The motion was denied, and the defendants were tried and convicted in district court. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the decision and held that the warrant was the product of the test of the powder, for which a warrant was required.


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

Media for United States v. Jacobsen

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 07, 1983 in United States v. Jacobsen

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in United States against Jacobsen.

Mr. Strauss, I think you may proceed when you're ready.

David S Strauss:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The issue in this case is whether law enforcement officers must obtain a search warrant before they conduct a chemical analysis of a substance that is lawfully in their possession to determine whether it is an illegal or controlled drug.

The facts of this case are typical of narcotics prosecutions.

In May 1981 the employees of Federal Express, which is a private freight carrier, opened a cardboard package addressed to Respondents that had been given to Federal Express for shipment.

Inside the package was a tube wrapped in gray tape.

The Federal Express employees cut open the tube and removed from inside of it a transparent container that consisted of four plastic bags, one inside the other.

Inside the innermost plastic bag was a white powder.

It is undisputed that the Federal Express employees undertook all these actions on their own without any governmental involvement whatever.

The Federal Express employees suspected that the white powder might be an illegal drug and--

Byron R. White:

Well, they didn't... they didn't open the plastic bag.

David S Strauss:

--They did not open the plastic bag, that's right.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Would the existence of the bag in that condition amount to, in your view, immediately apparent incriminating material to authorize a plain view seizure?

David S Strauss:

I think it's absolutely clear that at that point probable cause existed.

Sandra Day O'Connor:


David S Strauss:

That's right.

Because it was a white powder packaged--

Byron R. White:

Any white powder package like that, there's probable cause to believe that it's contraband?

David S Strauss:


I don't think people send baking soda or sugar or talcum powder through Federal Express wrapped in four plastic bags like that; or at least the probability of their doing so is small enough so this constitutes probable cause.

In fact, if this didn't constitute probable cause, then you're in the paradoxical situation... it's one of the oddities of the court of appeals opinion... that the court apparently thought that law enforcement officers were in the position that they couldn't do anything.

They would simply have had to allow this shipment to go through.

They couldn't seize it, they couldn't test it.

According to the court of appeals, they would simply have had to walk away at this point.

Warren E. Burger:

Do you think the knowledge they had acquired at that time before the testing, just the observation, would have been sufficient to support the issuance of a warrant to search the house after they made the controlled delivery?

David S Strauss:

Yes, I think that's right, because there existed probable cause to--

Warren E. Burger:

I was asking the question.

Is it... would it support the warrant?

David S Strauss: