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United States v. Robinson

A Traditional Exception To The Warrant Requirement

Justice Rehnquist, in his opinion for the majority, noted that a search incident to a lawful arrest is a traditional exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. This is based on two propositions. The first is that a search of a person may be made during a lawful arrest. The second is that a search may be made of the area within the control of the arrestee. The authority to search incident to a valid arrest has been repeatedly affirmed in decisions by the Court since Weeks v. United States was decided in 1914. These cases do not simply speak in terms of an exception to the warrant requirement, but in terms of an affirmative authority to search. Thus, they clearly imply that such searches also meet the Fourth Amendment's requirement of reasonableness.

Justice Rehnquist noted that early authorities are sketchy on the issue of search incident to arrest, but they tend to support the broad statement of the authority to search incident to arrest found in later Court decisions, rather than the restrictive one used by the court of appeals in this case. The reason for this authority rests both on the need to disarm a suspect and on the need to preserve evidence on his person. The police should not assume that a person arrested for driving with a revoked license is less likely to have dangerous weapons than a person arrested for some other crime. In taking a suspect into custody and transporting him to the police station, the officer is exposed to a certain amount of danger. This justifies treating all custodial arrests alike for the purposes of searching a suspect.

Justice Rehnquist's main argument with the court of appeals decision was that case-by-case adjudication was not necessary. "A police officer's determination as to how and where to search the person of a suspect whom he has arrested is necessarily a quick ad hoc judgment which the Fourth Amendment does not require to be broken down in each instance into an analysis of each step in the search." The authority to search does not depend on what a court might later decide was the likelihood that weapons or evidence might have been found on the suspect. Since a custodial arrest based on probable cause is a reasonable, lawful intrusion under the Fourth Amendment, a search incident to the arrest needs no further justification. The fact of the lawful arrest establishes the authority to search. In the case of a lawful custodial arrest a full search of the person is an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and is also a reasonable search under that amendment.

Justice Rehnquist summed up his remarks by noting that the search conducted by Officer Jenks was permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Although thorough, the search was not extreme or abusive. Since custodial arrest gives the authority to search, the fact that Jenks was not afraid of Robinson and did not suspect that he was armed makes no difference to his authority to search. Because Jenks found the crumpled cigarette package during the course of a lawful search, he was entitled to search it. When he found the heroin, he was entitled to seize it as "fruits, instrumentalities, or contraband" that furnished evidence of a crime.

Justice Powell, in a concurrence, stated, "I believe that an individual lawfully subjected to a custodial arrest retains no significant Fourth Amendment interest in the privacy of his person." Custodial arrest is a significant intrusion of state power into the privacy of one's person. During a lawful arrest one's privacy interest is subordinated to a legitimate and overriding governmental concern.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980United States v. Robinson - Significance, A Traditional Exception To The Warrant Requirement, A Long Tradition Of Case-by-case Adjudication