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United States v. Robinson

A Long Tradition Of Case-by-case Adjudication

Justice Marshall wrote the dissent. He noted that the majority's decision represented a clear and marked departure from the long tradition of case-by-case adjudication of the reasonableness of searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Justice Marshall believed that the Fourth Amendment has meaning only when the conduct of law enforcement can be subjected to the detached, neutral scrutiny of a judge who evaluates the reasonableness of a particular search or seizure, taking into account the particular circumstances. The function of the Fourth Amendment is to ensure that the "quick ad hoc" judgments of police officers are subject to review and control by the judiciary. There are some situations that require exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as moving vehicles, but those exceptions do not justify precluding further judicial inquiry into the reasonableness of that search. "It is the role of the judiciary, not of police officers, to delimit the scope of exceptions to the warrant requirement."

Justice Marshall noted that several states and federal courts have held that, absent special circumstances, a police officer has no right to conduct a full search of the person incident to a lawful arrest for violation of a motor vehicle regulation. Marshall felt that the majority's attempt to avoid case-by-case adjudication of Fourth Amendment issues "is not only misguided as a matter of principle, but is also doomed to fail as a matter of practical application." The possibility always exists of a police officer using a traffic stop as a pretext to conduct a search in the absence of probable cause. Case-by-case adjudication will always be necessary to determine whether a full arrest was made for legitimate reasons or as a pretext for a search.

An individual's interest in remaining free from unnecessarily intrusive invasions of privacy and society's interest that police officers not take unnecessary risks in the performance of their duties are competing interests that deserve the Court's most serious attention. Justice Marshall was not convinced that it is reasonable for police officers to conduct more than a Terry-type frisk for weapons when seeking to disarm a traffic offender who is taken into custody. He saw no justification consistent with the Fourth Amendment that authorized Jenks to open the package he found in Robinson's pocket and to look inside. Opening the package served no purpose because even if it had contained a small weapon, Robinson could not have gotten a hold of it once Jenks took it. "The mere fact of an arrest should be no justification, in and of itself, for invading the privacy of the individual's personal effects."

Justice Marshall felt that the only reasoned distinction that should be made in cases like this is between warrantless searches which serve legitimate protective and evidentiary functions and those that do not. Jenks's search went beyond what was reasonably necessary to protect him from harm or to ensure Robinson would not escape. This search fell outside the scope of a properly drawn "search incident to arrest" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.

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