United States v. Karo

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: James Karo, et al.

DOCKET NO.: 83-850
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 468 US 705 (1984)
ARGUED: Apr 25, 1984
DECIDED: Jul 03, 1984

Mr. Andrew L. Frey - on behalf of the petitioner
Charles P. Roberts, III - on behalf of the respondents
Charles Louis Roberts - on behalf of the respondents

Facts of the case

Defendants James Karo, Richard Horton, and William Harley ordered fifty gallons of ether from a government informant, to be used to extract cocaine from clothes imported into the United States. Carl Muehlenweg, the informant and owner of the ether, gave consent to the police to install a tracking device into one of the cans containing the ether before delivery to the defendants.


Does the installation of a tracking device into a container, with the permission of the original owner, constitute a seizure within the meaning of the 4th Amendment when the container is delivered to a buyer having no knowledge of the tracking device?

Media for United States v. Karo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 25, 1984 in United States v. Karo

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in United States against Karo.

I think you may proceed whenever you are ready, Mr. Frey.

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, this case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

It gives the Court the opportunity to revisit some issues that it considered last year in connection with the use of a very important law enforcement technique, the beeper.

Now, the case began when DEA agents investigating drug manufacturing activities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, through a course of investigation discovered that a gentleman named Carl Muehlenweg was acting as a front to acquire chemicals for certain illicit drug manufacturing operations, and they searched Muehlenweg's premises, and Muehlenweg agreed to cooperate with them in further investigations.

And some time thereafter he advised them that certain individuals had through him placed an order for 50 gallons of ether to be used in the process of extracting cocaine from clothing.

The agents with the consent of Mr. Muehlenweg and pursuant to a court order which was later held to be invalid secreted in the bottom of one of the containers or actually manufactured a duplicate container of ether and secreted a beeper, transmitter in the bottom of the container.

This was picked up by respondent Karo, who was followed by visual and beeper surveillance to his house.

Later that day the signal was no longer coming from the area of Karo's house, but the container or the beeper signal, at least, was located at respondent Horton's house, and the agents identified the general vicinity with the beeper and then walked by the outside of Horton's house and were able to smell the ether emanating from somewhere on the property.

Warren E. Burger:

Let me back you up a moment, Mr. Frey.

When the device, the beeper, as you call it, was placed in the drum, was it placed with the consent of the owner of that drum?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

It was placed with the consent of the owner at that time, although of course it was known that it was going to be delivered to other persons in the future, but at the time there was consent.

In any event, whether or not there was consent I don't think would be material here, because the invasion of the drum at that time did not invade any property interest or any privacy interest of any of the respondents, at that time.

But there was in fact consent.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Frey, supposing you carried that to a more extreme situation.

Supposing the government is very anxious to monitor the movements of a very suspected big criminal and they simply go to the men's clothing store where he shops and with the agreement of the salesperson have a beeper put in whatever tie he buys.

Now, obviously that is a more extreme situation than this, but is the logic much different?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

No, I don't think the logic would be much different.

The issue in this case, and the Court of Appeals didn't suggest that there was any Fourth Amendment violation in the installation by itself.

It was only the subsequent delivery of the container that contained the transmitter, which in their view gave rise to a Fourth Amendment problem.

In our view, it is the monitoring of that transmitter that gives rise to a Fourth Amendment issue, and not the mere silent presence of it.

William H. Rehnquist:

Not the installation.

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

I don't see how without the monitoring you have either a search or a seizure that is regulated by the Fourth Amendment.

You acquire no information from merely installing a dead or silent beeper.

It is of no value to you whatsoever.

So, in fact, suppose that the men's clothing store on its own had sewn this in their customer's tie and then had called up the FBI and said, we put a beeper in the tie.

He has come and picked it up.

If you want to follow him around, use the beeper.

Please feel free.

In my view, that would pose exactly the same Fourth Amendment question, and therefore I don't think it's the installation, even though that would have been a private installation of the beeper.