United States v. Ramsey

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION:Complete Auto Transit Inc.

DOCKET NO.: 76-167
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 431 US 606 (1977)
ARGUED: Mar 30, 1977
DECIDED: Jun 06, 1977

Allan M. Palmer – for the respondent Charles W
Irving R. M. Panzer – for the respondent James W
Kenneth Steven Geller – for the petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Ramsey

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 30, 1977 in United States v. Ramsey

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 06, 1977 in United States v. Ramsey

William H. Rehnquist:

In the case of United States versus Ramsey and Kelly which comes here from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Respondents were convicted of the unlawful importation of heroin.

Prior to trial, they moved to suppress the introduction into evidence of heroin that had been mailed into this country from Thailand and which have been discovered when the customs inspector opened, without a warrant, the envelop at the post office in New York City.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that the evidence should have been suppressed since it viewed the Fourth Amendment in conjunction with the First Amendment as requiring the obtaining of a warrant upon probable cause prior to the opening of the envelop.

Since this conclusion was contrary to the decisions of every other Court of Appeals which should pass down the question, we granted certiorari to resolve the conflict.

For the reason set forth and an opinion which has been filed with the clerk this morning, we reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

We conclude that Congress and the applicable postal regulations authorized this search and that they authorized customs officials to search any envelop in which they have a reasonable cause to suspect, there is a contraband or merchandise imported contrary to our custom’s law.

We also conclude the Constitution does not prohibit what was done here.

A longstanding history demonstrates that the Government acting without a warrant may search persons and things crossing our borders.

Such searches are reasonable by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border without warrant. We conclude that mail should be treated no differently.

Whereas here the statute authorizes openings upon reasonable cause and the applicable regulations prohibit the reading of the communications after the opening of them neither the First nor the Fourth Amendment prohibits the opening of mail at the border without a search warrant.

Mr. Justice Powell has filed a concurring opinion.

Mr. Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall joined.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Rehnquist.