United States v. Knotts

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Leroy Carlton Knotts
LOCATION:Shell Lake, Wisconsin

DOCKET NO.: 81-1802
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 460 US 276 (1983)
ARGUED: Dec 06, 1982
DECIDED: Mar 02, 1983
GRANTED: Jun 02, 1982

Mr. Andrew L. Frey – on behalf of the Petitioner
Mark W. Peterson – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Tristan Armstrong, a former employee of the 3M Company, which manufactures chemicals in St. Paul, came under suspicion for stealing chemicals that could be used to manufacture illegal drugs. The company notified a narcotics agent, and further investigation determined that Armstrong had been purchasing similar chemicals from the Hawkins Chemical Company in St. Louis. With the consent of Hawkins Chemical Company, narcotics agents installed a radio transmitter in the container of chloroform that Armstrong would receive. By tracking the radio transmitter, officers were able to track Armstrong delivering the chloroform to Darryl Petschen. Petschen drove it to a cabin owned by Leroy Carlton Knotts in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. Relying on this information, the officers obtained a search warrant for the cabin and found a fully operable drug-manufacturing lab.

Knotts was convicted in district court after the court denied his motion to suppress the evidence. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the conviction and held that the monitoring of the radio transmitter violated Knotts’ Fourth Amendment rights.


Does police planting and tracking of a radio transmitter violate the Fourth Amendment?

Media for United States v. Knotts

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 06, 1982 in United States v. Knotts

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 02, 1983 in United States v. Knotts

Warren E. Burger:

Justice Rehnquist will announce the judgment and opinion of the Court in United States against Knotts.

William H. Rehnquist:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that involves beepers.

A beeper is a radio transmitter which emits periodic signals that can be picked up by a radio receiver.

In this case, Minnesota police officers arranged with a seller of chemicals to install a beeper inside a five-gallon container of chloroform.

Chloroform can be used in manufacturing illegal drugs.

After the container was sold, the police followed its movements.

It changed hands once but by maintaining contact through visual surveillance and monitoring the beeper signal, the police were able to track the chloroform container across the St. Croix River and then to Wisconsin to respondent’s secluded cabin near Shell Lake, Wisconsin.

A subsequent search of the cabin pursuant to a warrant revealed an illegal drug traffic.

We’ve been asked to decide whether the monitoring of the beeper violated any reasonable expectation of privacy held by respondent thus running afoul of the Fourth Amendment.

We have concluded that it did not.

The surveillance in this case was directed to the following of an automobile on public streets and highways and to its departure from the highway onto respondent’s privately owned premises.

A person travelling on public thoroughfares could not reasonably expect that his movements on those thoroughfares and his departure from them will not be observed by others.

Everything learned by the police officers in this case could have been learned by visual surveillance from public places.

The fact that the officers augmented their sensory facilities with such enhancement as science and technology afford does not require any different constitutional analysis.

Because of our view that monitoring the beeper signals did not invade any legitimate expectation of privacy on respondent’s part, we have concluded that there was neither a search nor a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Brennan has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment which Justice Marshall has joined.

Justice Blackmun has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment which Justice Brennan, Justice Marshall, and Justice Stevens joined.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment which Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall joined.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Justice Rehnquist.