United States v. Ramsey Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Customs officials opened, without a warrant, eight envelopes from Thailand and found heroin.

Facts of the case


Whether mailed letters are subject to the border exception.


No. The court discussed the historical rationale of the border exception. Border searches . . . have been considered to be ‘reasonable’ by the single fact that the person or item in question had entered into our country from outside. There was no need for a warrant to open the envelopes.


“The Supreme Court of the United States held that the customs official’s opening of the letters did not violate the Fourth Amendment, but fell within the border search exception to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, whereby a search at a United States border was considered reasonable under the Amendment, notwithstanding the absence of probable cause or a warrant. The Court held that 19 U.S.C.S. § 482 expressly authorized searches of the mails entering United States borders, and that such searches were not confined to packages as opposed to letters. The Court held that the § 482 “”reasonable cause”” standard was less stringent than the Fourth Amendment “”probable cause”” standard, and was satisfied where the officer, based on experience, became suspicious of a number of similar looking letters originating from Thailand that contained more than letter paper. The Court held that a border search was an exception to the warrant requirement and was not based upon the existence of “”exigent circumstances.”” The Court noted that the Congress that proposed the Bill of Rights also enacted the first customs statute authorizing such searches.”

  • Case Brief: 1977
  • Petitioner: United States
  • Respondent: Ramsey
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 431 US 606 (1977)
Argued: Mar 30, 1977
Decided: Jun 6, 1977