United States v. Johns

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Commodity Futures Trading Commission

DOCKET NO.: 83-1625
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 469 US 478 (1985)
ARGUED: Nov 28, 1984
DECIDED: Jan 21, 1985

Alan I. Horowitz - on behalf of petitioner
William G. Walker - on behalf of Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Johns

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 28, 1984 in United States v. Johns

Warren E. Burger:

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

Mr. Horowitz, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Alan I. Horowitz:

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

This case is here on a writ of certiorari from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The question presented concerns the authority of police officers to open bales of marijuana wrapped in plastic bags and found in a vehicle.

Specifically, the question is whether the lapse of time that occurred from the discovery of the packages to the time when core samples were taken from those packages, eliminated the officer's prior authority to open the packages without a warrant on the basis of probable cause.

The facts may be briefly stated as follows: at approximately 1:30 a.m. on August 4, 1981, Customs officers received a report of suspicious activity at a drag strip outside Tucson, Arizona.

A car leaving the site was intercepted and its occupants were identified as Respondents Johns and Hearron.

Pursuant to an ongoing investigation, Customs officials already had prior information linking Johns with Respondents Leon and Duarge in an international drug smuggling operation.

Accordingly, a Customs officer then commenced surveillance at Leon's and Duarte's residences, which led him to follow their two pickup trucks as they headed east on Interstate Highway 10 in Arizona.

Other officers were contacted, and ground and air surveillance was maintained on the trucks which drove about 100 miles east to a remote airstrip near Bowie, Arizona.

Shortly after the trucks arrived, the first of two small planes landed.

The agents on the ground were situated too far away to see what transpired there, but they were told by their colleagues in the air that one of the trucks approached the plane.

The first plane then departed, and a second plane landed and subsequently departed.

The officers then approached the trucks to investigate.

When they got close to them, they smelled marijuana and saw approximately 40 square packages wrapped in plastic, exposed in the back of the trucks.

Five of the Respondents were arrested at the scene, and the trucks and the packages were transported back to a DEA warehouse in Tucson.

Sometime thereafter, three days later, according to the opinion of the Court of Appeals, core samples were taken from some of the bales and sent to the laboratory for analysis.

This analysis confirmed that they were in fact marijuana.

No search warrant was obtained.

The District Court suppressed the contraband, finding that it was the fruit of a warrantless search that was prohibited by the then controlling Supreme Court authority in Robbins v. California.

The government appealed, relying primarily on footnote 13 in Arkansas v. Sanders and contending that the telltale odor and the nature of the packaging of these bales made the contents sufficiently obvious that no warrant was required.

While the case was pending on appeal, this Court decided United States v. Ross, and the parties submitted supplemental memoranda to address the significance of that decision.

The government claimed that ross was dispositive.

Respondents made two arguments.

First, they claimed that Ross should not be applied retroactively, and second, they contended that Ross did not apply in this case because the probable cause focused on the packages themselves, not on the trucks.

The Court of Appeals rejected both of these arguments.

However, it found for Respondents on a ground not briefed by the parties.

The Court ruled that a warrant was required to open the packages after the three-day delay, even though one would not have been required had the search been conducted immediately at the scene or immediately at the station house.

The Court denied the government's petition for rehearing and the government petition for certiorari.