Winston v. Lee

Facts of the Case

A shopkeeper was wounded by gunshot during an attempted robbery but, also being armed with a gun, apparently wounded his assailant in his left side, and the assailant then ran from the scene. Shortly after the victim was taken to a hospital, police officers found respondent, who was suffering from a gunshot wound to his left chest area, eight blocks away from the shooting. He was also taken to the hospital, where the victim identified him as the assailant. After an investigation, the police charged respondent with,


Does the Fourth Amendment prevent a state from a forcing a suspect to undergo surgery in order to retrieve evidence?


Yes. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. delivered the unanimous opinion. The Court held that below-the-skin surgery represented such an infringement on the expectation of privacy that it must be justified by a compelling need for the evidence that might be produced. Since the state could not demonstrate a compelling need for the bullet in order to make the case against Lee, the Court held that the intrusion on Lee’s privacy vastly outweighed any state interest. Therefore, the surgery would be an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.Justice Harry A. Blackmun and Justice William H. Rehnquist concurred in the judgment.In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote that he did not read this decision as preventing the police from detaining a suspect whose body they believed to contain evidence that would be naturally revealed.

Case Information

  • Citation: 470 US 753 (1985)
  • Argued: Oct 31, 1984
  • Decided Mar 20, 1985Granted: Apr 16, 1984