Ybarra v. Illinois

Facts of the Case

Equipped with a search warrant authorizing them to search a tavern and the person of its bartender Greg for evidence of narcotics possession, police officers entered the tavern, announced their purpose, and advised all those present that they intended to conduct a cursory search for weapons. One officer proceeded to pat down each of the nine to thirteen tavern patrons, while the others searched the premises. In his initial pat down of a customer, the officer felt a cigarette pack with objects in it, but did not remove the pack from the customer’s pocket. After completing the pat down of the others, he returned to the customer a few minutes later, retrieved the pack, and discovered tinfoil packets containing heroin. After his indictment by an Illinois grand jury for the unlawful possession of a controlled substance, the customer filed a pretrial motion to suppress all the contraband that had been seized from his person. The Illinois trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that the search had been conducted under the authority of an Illinois statute empowering officers, in executing a warrant, to detain and search any person found on the premises if necessary to either protect themselves from attack, or to prevent the disposal or concealment of anything particularly described in the warrant. After the customer was found guilty of possession of heroin, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed his conviction, determining that the state statute was not unconstitutional in its application to the facts of the case. The customer sought review.


Does the Illinois state statute that allows authorities to search persons on the premises during the execution of a valid search warrant violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments?


Justice Potter Stewart delivered the opinion of the 6-3 majority. The Supreme Court held that there was no probable cause to suspect any of the patrons of committing a crime simply because they are on the premises during a search. Without any particular indication that a person is connected to the premises for the reasons the search is being conducted, a police search of the person violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court also held that even an initial pat-down search is unconstitutional without a reasonable belief that the person is armed and dangerous.Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the majority’s opinion creates an unnecessarily broad reading of the exclusionary rule and ignores the practical needs of law enforcement. He also argued that it was perfectly reasonable for the police to search persons found on the premises of a bar known as a place for the procurement of drugs and that the law must account for the safety of officers in performing their duty. Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William H. Rehnquist joined in the dissent. In his separate dissent, Justice Rehnquist wrote that the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment calls for specificity regarding the location to be searched and the person or things to be seized, not the persons from whom items will be taken. He argued that it was not practical to prohibit law enforcement from flexibility in the performance of their duty. The courts may consider the reasonableness of an individual search based on the scope of the intrusion and the justification to determine whether it violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. Chief Justice Burger and Justice Blackmun joined in the dissent.

Case Information

  • Citation: 444 US 85 (1979)
  • Argued: Oct 9, 1979
  • Decided Nov 28, 1979