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Chapman v. United States (365 U.S. 610)/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

365 U.S. 610

Chapman  v.  United States (365 U.S. 610)

 Argued: Feb. 23, 1961. --- Decided: April 3, 1961

Acting without a warrant but with the consent of the petitioner's landlord, Georgia law enforcement officers entered through an unlocked window-and searched petitioner's rented house, in his absence, and there found and seized an unregistered 'distillery' and 1,300 gallons of 'mash.' Soon afterward petitioner was indicted in the District Court for the Middle District of Georgia for violations of the federal liquor laws. [1] He promptly moved the court for an order suppressing the use of the seized items as evidence at his impending criminal trial on the ground that they were obtained by an unlawful search and seizure. After hearing evidence, the court held that the search and seizure were lawful under federal standards and denied the motion.

At the subsequent trial, the evidence sought to be suppressed was offered and received, over petitioner's renewed objections. Upon that evidence, the jury found petitioner guilty, and the court sentenced him to imprisonment for a year and a day. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. 272 F.2d 70. To examine petitioner's claim that the courts below violated the standards governing admissibility of timely challenged evidence in federal courts, we granted certiorari. 363 U.S. 836, 80 S.Ct. 1621, 4 L.Ed.2d 1724.

The relevant evidence is not controverted. It shows the following: One Bridgaman, and another, owned a dwelling house in a wooded area near the Macon, Georgia, airport, which they commonly rented through a rental agency. Understanding that the house had been rented to a new tenant, Bridgaman, on Sunday, February 16, 1958, went to the house for the purpose of inviting the tenants to attend church. Upon arrival he noted a strong 'odor of mash' about the house. There was no response to his knock, and, although he tried to do so, he was unable to see into the house. He then returned to his home and, by telephone, advised the local police department of his observations. Soon afterward two local police officers, Harbin and Chance, arrived at Bridgaman's home, and the three then went to the rented house. They noticed a strong odor of 'whiskey mash' coming from the house. After their knock at the door failed to produce a response, they walked around the house and tried to look into it but were unable to do so because the shades were down. They found that all of the windows were locked, save one in the bathroom. The officers testified that Bridgaman told them 'to go in the window and see what('s) what in there.' Bridgaman's version of what he said was: 'If it's what I think it is, what it smells like, yes, you can have my permission to go in.' Thereupon they opened the bathroom window and, with the assistance of Bridgaman and Chance, Harbin entered the house through that opening. Upon entering the house he saw a complete and sizable distillery and 1,300 gallons of mash located in the living room. Apart from some accessories, containers and firewood, there was nothing else in the house. Harbin then called to Chance that he had found a large still and asked him 'to go get some help.' Chance immediately left-dropping Bridgaman at his home-to call the federal officers. While the federal officers were en route to the house, petitioner drove up, unlocked the front door, entered the house and was immediately arrested by Harbin. The federal officers soon arrived and took custody of petitioner. They also saved samples of the mash, took various pictures of the scene and then destroyed the still and its contents. Neither the state nor the federal officers had any warrant of any kind.

Although the decisions below were rendered prior to this Court's decision in Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 80 S.Ct. 1437, 4 L.Ed.2d 1669, the doctrine of that case is not here involved, as the lower courts explicitly rested their determinations on the ground that the search and seizure, though made by state officers, were valid under federal standards. Hence, the only question here is whether those determinations were correct. We believe that they were not.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:

'The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.'

Until Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20, 46 S.Ct. 4, 70 L.Ed. 145, this Court had never directly decided, but had always assumed, 'that one's house cannot lawfully be searched without a search warrant, except as an incident to a lawful arrest therein' (id., 269 U.S. at page 32, 46 S.Ct. at page 6), but that case explicitly decided that 'Belief, however well founded, that an article sought is concealed in a dwelling house furnishes no justification for a search of that place without a warrant. And such searches are * * * unlawful notwithstanding facts unquestionably showing probable cause.' Id., 269 U.S. at page 33, 46 S.Ct. at page 6.

At least two decisions of this Court are closely relevant. Taylor v. United States, 286 U.S. 1, 52 S.Ct. 466, 76 L.Ed. 951, and Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 68 S.Ct. 367, 92 L.Ed. 436. In the Taylor case, Federal agents had received 'complaints' respecting activities at a certain garage in Baltimore and decided to 'investigate.' As they 'approached the garage they got the odor of whiskey coming from within.' Looking through a small opening, they saw a number of cardboard cases. Although they had no warrant of any kind, they 'broke the fastening upon a door, entered, and found 122 cases of whiskey. No one was within the place and there was no reason to think otherwise. While the search progressed, Taylor came from his house and was put under arrest. The search and seizure were undertaken with the hope of securing evidence upon which to indict and convict him.' Id., 286 U.S. at page 5, 52 S.Ct. at page 467.

In condemning that search and seizure, this Court said that the officers 'had abundant opportunity (to obtain a warrant) and to proceed in an orderly way even after the odor had emphasized their suspicious; there was no probability of material change in the situation during the time necessary to secure such warrant. Moreover, a short period of watching would have prevented any such possibility. * * * Prohibition officers may rely on a distinctive odor as a physical fact indicative of possible crime; but its presence alone does not strip the owner of a building of constitutional guarantees * * * against unreasonable search.' The Court concluded that 'in any view, the action of the agents was inexcusable and the seizure unreasonable. The evidence was obtained unlawfully and should have been suppressed.' Id., 286 U.S. at page 6, 52 S.Ct. at page 467.

In the Johnson case, state narcotic agents, while in the hallway of a hotel, recognized a strong odor of burning opium coming from a particular room. Without knowing who was occupying the room, they knocked and, after some delay, the door was opened. The agents then entered the room and told the occupant 'to consider (herself) under arrest because we are going to search the room.' The search produced incriminating opium and smoking apparatus which was warm from recent use. The District Court refused to suppress that evidence and admitted it over defendant's objection at the trial and she was convicted. In reversing, this Court said:

'The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences 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.

Any assumption that evidence sufficient to support a magistrate's disinterested determination to issue a search warrant will justify the officers in making a search without a warrant would reduce the Amendment to a nullity and leave the people's homes secure only in the discretion of police officers. * * * The right of officers to thrust themselves into a home is also a grave concern, not only to the individual but to a society which chooses to dwell in reasonable security and freedom from surveillance. When the right of privacy must reasonably yield to the right of search is, as a rule, to be decided by a judicial officer, not by a policeman or Government enforcement agent.

'There are exceptional circumstances in which, on balancing the need for effective law enforcement against the right of privacy, it may be contended that a magistrate's warrant for search may be dispensed with. But this is not such a case.' 333 U.S. at pages 13-15, 68 S.Ct. at pages 368, 369.

Here, as in that case, 'No reason is offered for not obtaining a search warrant except the inconvenience to the officers and some slight delay necessary to prepare papers and present the evidence to a magistrate. These are never very convincing reasons and, in these circumstances, certainly are not enough to bypass the constitutional requirement. No suspect was fleeing or likely to take flight. The search was of permanent premises, not of a movable vehicle. No evidence or contraband was threatened with removal or destruction, except perhaps the fumes which we suppose in time would disappear.' 333 U.S. at page 15, 68 S.Ct. at page 369.

We think it must be concluded here, as it was in Johnson, that 'If the officers in this case were excused from the constitutional duty of presenting their evidence to a magistrate, it is difficult to think of a case in which it should be required.' 333 U.S. at page 15, 68 S.Ct. at page 369. See also Lustig v. United States, 338 U.S. 74, 69 S.Ct. 1372, 93 L.Ed. 1819; United States v. Rabinowitz, 339 U.S. 56, 70 S.Ct. 430, 94 L.Ed. 653; United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 72 S.Ct. 93, 96 L.Ed. 59; Jones v. United States, 357 U.S. 493, 78 S.Ct. 1253, 2 L.Ed.2d 1514.

Actually, the Government does not contend in this Court that this search and seizure, as such, met the standards of the Fourth Amendment. Instead, it says: 'Our position is that when the landlord, paying a social call, found good reason to believe that the leased premises were being wasted and used for criminal purposes, he had authority to enter as a matter of right and to bring officers with him for this purpose.' It says that, under the common law, a landlord has an absolute right to enter the demised premises 'to view waste,' and that he should be able to exercise that right through law enforcement officers to whom he has delegated his authority. But it cites no Georgia or other case holding that a landlord, in the absence of an express covenant so permitting, has a right forcibly to enter the demised premises without the consent of the tenant 'to view waste.' And, so far as our research discloses, no Georgia case so holds.

The only relevant authority cited by the Government is a statement from Tiffany, Landlord and Tenant (1910 ed.), § 3.b.(2), p. 9, that 'It has also been said that (the landlord) may enter to 'view waste,' that is, to determine whether waste has been committed, provided at least that this does not involve the breaking of windows or doors * * *.' [2] (Emphasis added.) There are several answers to this contention. First, here the landlord and the officers forced open a window to gain entry to the premises. Second, 'their purpose in entering was (not to view waste but) to search for distilling equipment * * *.' Jones v. United States, supra, 357 U.S. at page 500, 78 S.Ct. at page 1257. Third, to uphold such an entry, search and seizure 'without a warrant would reduce the (Fourth) Amendment to a nullity and leave (tenants') homes secure only in the discretion of (landlords).' Johnson v. United States, supra, 333 U.S. at page 14, 68 S.Ct. at page 369. Moreover, 'it is unnecessary and ill-advised to import into the law surrounding the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures subtle distinctions, developed and refined by the common law in evolving the body of private property law which, more than almost any other branch of law, has been shaped by distinctions whose validity is largely historical. * * * (W)e ought not to bow to them in the fair administration of the criminal law. To do so would not comport with our justly proud claim of the procedural protections accorded to those charged with crime.' Jones v. United States, 362 U.S. 257, 266-267, 80 S.Ct. 725, 733, 4 L.Ed.2d 697.

After pointing to the fact that a Georgia statute (Title 58 Ga.Code § 106) provides that the unlawful manufacture of distilled liquor on rented premises shall work a forfeiture of the rights of the tenant, at the option of the landlord, and that another (Title 58 Ga.Code § 109) provides that use of a structure for that purpose constitutes a nuisance, the Government argues that, inasmuch as he used the demised premises for the illicit manufacture of distilled liquor, petitioner had forfeited all rights in the premises, and the landlord thus acquired the right forcibly to enter to abate the nuisance, and that he could and did delegate that right to the officers. But it is clear that, before the officers made the forcible entry, the landlord did not know that the premises were being used for the manufacture of liquor, nor had he exercised his statutory option to forfeit the tenancy for such a cause. And the Supreme Court of Georgia has held that a proceeding to abate a nuisance under § 109 'must proceed for the public on information filed by the solicitor-general of the circuit.' Kilgore v. Paschall, 202 Ga. 416, 417, 43 S.E.2d 520, 521.

It follows that this search was unlawful, and since evidence obtained through that search was admitted at the trial, the judgment of the Court of Appeals must be reversed.



^1  26 U.S.C. §§ 5601, 5606, 26 U.S.C.A. §§ 5601, 5606.

^2  Only ancient English cases are cited in support of the text.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).