Thursday, December 11, 1997

US Supreme Court US v. Mendenhall 78-1821

Decided May 27, 1980

   DEA agents met with Mendenhall at the airport, questioned her briefly, and then she agreed to go with them to the DEA office, where she later consented to a search of her person (after being informed of her right to refuse).  The search uncovered heroin, and she was convicted at trial.  The conviction was appealed on grounds that the agents had insufficient evidence to detain Mendenhall.  The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, holding that the agents' contact wtih Mendenhall (to include her visit to the office and the search) was consensual.

   This decision clarified the definition of when a person is detained, saying that ""We adhere to the view that a person is 'seized' only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained," and "we conclude that a person has been 'seized' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave."  The decision also listed some of the factors which are to be taken into account in deciding whether this standard has been met.  It's pretty much the same list that the district attorney always runs through on direct examination at hearings on motions to suppress statements made without Miranda advisements.

Saturday, December 6, 1997

US Supreme Court Walter v. US 79-67

Decided June 20, 1980.

   A package containing obscene films (being illegally shipped in interstate commerce) was mistakenly delivered to the wrong address.  The unintended recipients opened the packaged, saw some descriptive labels and drawings on the films, but didn't view the actual films (one of them tried to hold a filmstrip up to the light so he could see what the film was, but couldn't make it out).  Then they called the FBI.  Agents arrived, and took possession of the films.  A couple months later, without ever trying to get a warrant, they watched the films and determined in their professional opinions that these were, in fact, pornographic.  Walter (the sender of the films) was subsequently arrested and convicted of multiple counts of not inviting the FBI to the party (otherwise known as "obscenity charges relating to the interstate transportation of 5 of the 871 films in the shipment").  

   Walter appealed, arguing that the viewing of the films was a search which violated the Fourth Amendment.

   The US Supreme Court agreed with Walter.  The court noted that Walter's expectation of privacy in the contents of the package had already been partially frustrated when private individuals opened the package (the Fourth Amendment does not protect against searches anyone other than the government and its agents).  The feds were entitled to rely on the information which the unintended recipients of the package had already discovered (the descriptive labels and drawings), but they weren't entitled to expand beyond that search (by viewing the films) unless there was some other justification for the search.  Although the labels and drawing created probable cause, there was no exigency.  Nor was there any other reason for searching without a warrant.

   This decision also contains some interesting discussion of the permissible scope of searches.  It boils down to a requirement that searches must be limited in scope by the terms authorizing the search.  Consent to search a garage does not allow the police to search the adjoining house.  A warrant to search for a refrigerator does not allow the police to open desk drawers.  A warrant (consent, exigency, whatever) isn't just a ticket to get into the house and search everything.  By the same token, although the police can rely on information obtained by a third person who conducted their own search, that third person's search doesn't give the police carte blanche to search everything.  

   In this case, the circumstances would have allowed the FBI to obtain a warrant, but they did not support a warrantless search.  Since there was no warrant, the evidence was suppressed and Walter's conviction was reversed.