United States v. Ross

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Vehicle of Ross

DOCKET NO.: 80-2209
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 456 US 798 (1982)
ARGUED: Mar 01, 1982
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1982

Mr. Andrew L. Frey - Argued the cause for the United States
William J. Garber - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Acting on a tip that Ross was selling drugs from his car in the District of Columbia, police officers pulled Ross over, opened his trunk, and discovered a bag of heroin. After returning to the station, another search uncovered $3200 in cash. Officers acted without a warrant in each search.


Did the police violate the Fourth Amendment?

Media for United States v. Ross

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 01, 1982 in United States v. Ross

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first today in the case of the United States against Ross.

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

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, this case is here on a writ of certiorari for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which reversed Respondent's conviction on the ground that certain evidence should have been suppressed.

The evidence was heroin found in a paper bag seized on probable cause from the trunk of Respondent's automobile and searched without a warrant.

So the issue in this case is whether police officers who possess probable cause to search a paper bag found during the lawful search of an automobile must procure a search warrant before examining the contents of that bag.

I think this divides itself into two sub-issues, first, in general, whether a paper bag is a container of the kind to which the warrant requirement applies, and secondly, assuming that it is outside an automobile, whether the requirement applies when it is discovered in the course of a probable cause search of an automobile.

I don't usually employ visual aids in my arguments before this Court, but I think in this case it is important not to stick solely to abstractions, so I do have a paper bag which resembles, although it is not the actual bag that was involved in this case.

Now, what this case is about is whether the Fourth Amendment requires officers who needed no warrant to arrest Respondent, no warrant to carefully examine the passenger compartment and glove compartment of his car, and to unlock and search its trunk, to stop their search upon coming across a paper bag like this, which they have probable cause to believe contains heroin, to carry the bag carefully to the courthouse, to spend several hours preparing and presenting a warrant application to a magistrate before they may open the top of the bag and look inside.

Mr. Frey, can I ask a question about the visual aid?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:


Is that bag stapled together?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

No, it is not.

Would it make any difference in your argument?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

Well, I am sure that I would contend for the same result, for a number of reasons which I will get to, but it is potentially a relevant consideration, because the steps that may have been taken to preserve an interest of privacy have some bearing, in my view, on the application of the warrant requirement.

I think stapling a paper bag together would clearly be insufficient to activate the requirements.

Now, I would like to make some preliminary observations--

What could you do with it?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

--Excuse me?

What could be done with it if stapling is not enough?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

With a paper bag?


Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

Well, I am not sure that anything could be done with a paper bag that would be sufficient to--

Well, that is really your position, isn't it?

Mr. Andrew L. Frey:

--Well, that is... that is our position, but in order for us to prevail in this case, it is not necessary for the Court to decide the exceptional case in which a paper bag were stapled, taped, marked

"Private contents, do not open. "

and so on.

We would still argue that the paper bag is such an unsuitable container to maintain substantial privacy interests that the costs of the warrant requirement are not justified, but that would present an exceptional case, and I think that what is before the Court today must be judged in terms of the general class of cases involving searches of containers that ordinarily are not used as a repository for highly private or personal effects.

Now, I wanted to make a couple of preliminary observations, and the first is that search and seizure issues generally have two facets.

The first is the substantive inquiry into the amount and quality of the justification the police must possess before they may conduct a search, and the second is the procedural inquiry into whether a warrant should be required as a precondition to the search.

Now, without denigrating the importance of the warrant in appropriate cases, I submit that the substantive requirement in cases like this, probable cause, is the far more important protection in safeguarding basic Fourth Amendment values.