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decided: June 20, 1979.



Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, Stewart, White, and Marshall, JJ., joined. Burger, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Stevens, J., joined, post, p. 766. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, J., joined, post, p. 768.

Author: Powell

[ 442 U.S. Page 754]

 MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether, in the absence of exigent circumstances, police are required to obtain a warrant before searching luggage taken from an automobile properly stopped and searched for contraband. We took this case by writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Arkansas to resolve some apparent misunderstanding as to the application of our decision in United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977), to warrantless searches of luggage seized from automobiles.*fn1

[ 442 U.S. Page 755]


On April 23, 1976, Officer David Isom of the Little Rock, Ark., Police Department received word from an informant that at 4:35 that afternoon respondent would arrive aboard an American Airlines flight at gate No. 1 of the Municipal Airport of Little Rock. According to the informant, respondent would be carrying a green suitcase containing marihuana. Both Isom and the informant knew respondent well, as in January 1976 the informant had given the Little Rock Police Department information that had led to respondent's arrest and conviction for possession of marihuana. Acting on the tip, Officer Isom and two other police officers placed the airport under surveillance. As the informant had predicted, respondent duly arrived at gate No. 1. The police watched as respondent deposited some hand luggage in a waiting taxicab, returned to the baggage claim area, and met a man whom police subsequently identified as David Rambo. While Rambo waited, respondent retrieved from the airline baggage service a green suitcase matching that described by the informant. Respondent gave this suitcase to his companion and went outside, where he entered the taxi into which he had put his luggage. Rambo waited a short while in the airport and then joined respondent in the taxi, after placing the green suitcase in the trunk of the vehicle.

When respondent's taxi drove away carrying respondent, Rambo, and the suitcase, Officer Isom and one of his fellow officers gave pursuit and, with the help of a patrol car, stopped the vehicle several blocks from the airport. At the request of the police, the taxi driver opened the trunk of his vehicle, where the officers found the green suitcase. Without asking the permission of either respondent or Rambo, the police opened the unlocked suitcase and discovered what proved to be 9.3 pounds of marihuana packaged in 10 plastic bags.

On October 14, 1976, respondent and Rambo were charged with possession of marihuana with intent to deliver in violation

[ 442 U.S. Page 756]

     of Ark. Stat. Ann. ยง 82-2617 (1976).*fn2 Before trial, respondent moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the suitcase, contending that the search violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The trial court held a hearing on January 31, 1977, and denied the suppression motion without explanation. After respondent's conviction by a jury on February 3, 1977, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was fined $15,000.

On appeal the Supreme Court of Arkansas reversed respondent's conviction, ruling that the trial court should have suppressed the marihuana because it was obtained through an unlawful search of the suitcase. 262 Ark. 595, 559 S. W. 2d 704 (1977). Relying upon United States v. Chadwick, supra, and Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971), the court concluded that a warrantless search generally must be supported by "probable cause coupled with exigent circumstances." 262 Ark., at 599, 559 S. W. 2d, at 706. In the present case, the court found there was ample probable cause for the police officers' belief that contraband was contained in the suitcase they searched. The court found to be wholly lacking, however, any exigent circumstance justifying the officers' failure to secure a warrant for the search of the luggage. With the police in control of the automobile and its occupants, there was no danger that the suitcase and its contents would be rendered unavailable to due legal process. The court concluded, therefore, that there was "nothing in this set of circumstances that would lend credence to an assertion of impracticality in obtaining a search warrant." Id., at 600, 559 S. W. 2d, at 706.*fn3

[ 442 U.S. Page 757]


Although the general principles applicable to claims of Fourth Amendment violations are well settled, litigation over requests for suppression of highly relevant evidence continues to occupy much of the attention of courts at all levels of the state and federal judiciary. Courts and law enforcement officials often find it difficult to discern the proper application of these principles to individual cases, because the circumstances giving rise to suppression requests can vary almost infinitely. Moreover, an apparently small difference in the factual situation frequently is viewed as a controlling difference in determining Fourth Amendment rights. The present case presents an example. Only two Terms ago, we held that a locked footlocker could not lawfully be searched without a warrant, even though it had been loaded into the trunk of an automobile parked at a curb. United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1 (1977). In earlier cases, on the other hand, the Court sustained the constitutionality of warrantless searches of automobiles and their contents under what has become known as the "automobile exception" to the warrant requirement. See, e. g., Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970); Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). We thus are presented with the task of determining whether the warrantless search of respondent's suitcase falls on the Chadwick or the Chambers/Carroll side of the Fourth Amendment line. Although in a sense this is a line-drawing process, it must be guided by established principles.

We commence with a summary of these principles. The Fourth Amendment protects the privacy and security of persons

[ 442 U.S. Page 758]

     in two important ways. First, it guarantees "[the] right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." In addition, this Court has interpreted the Amendment to include the requirement that normally searches of private property be performed pursuant to a search warrant issued in compliance with the Warrant Clause.*fn4 See, e. g., Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 390 (1978); United States v. Chadwick, supra, at 9; United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297, 317 (1972); Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967); Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20, 33 (1925). In the ordinary case, therefore, a search of private property must be both reasonable and pursuant to a properly issued search warrant. The mere reasonableness of a search, assessed in the light of the surrounding circumstances, is not a substitute for the judicial warrant required under the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. United States District Court, supra. As the Court said in Coolidge v. New Hampshire, supra, at 481:

"The warrant requirement has been a valued part of our constitutional law for decades, and it has determined the result in scores and scores of cases in courts all over this country. It is not an inconvenience to be somehow 'weighed' against the claims of police efficiency. It is, or should be, an important working part of our machinery of government, operating as a matter of course to check the 'well-intentioned but mistakenly overzealous executive officers' who are a part of any system of law enforcement."

[ 442 U.S. Page 759]

     The prominent place the warrant requirement is given in our decisions reflects the "basic constitutional doctrine that individual freedoms will best be preserved through a separation of powers and division of functions among the different branches and levels of Government." United States v. United States District Court, supra, at 317. By requiring that conclusions concerning probable cause and the scope of a search "be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime," Johnson v. United States, 333 ...

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