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United States v. Edwards


The holding in Edwards is significant because it effectively expands the length of time that police officers have to make warrantless searches and seizures after the time of arrest, but while the suspect is still detained.

On 21 May 1970, at around 10:15 p.m., Patrolman Ashley of the Lebanon, Ohio Police Department received a report that a suspicious tan car with out-of-town license plates was parked near the city's post office. Three men had been seen leaving the car, and two persons had been seen at a meat locker on the street corner. After examining the car and the meat locker and finding nothing amiss, Ashley decided to check the post office, where he spotted two men walking along the sidewalk and then crossing the street. About three minutes later, Ashley received a radio report that the silent burglar alarm at the post office had sounded in the home of a nearby resident.

Ashley overtook, apprehended, and arrested the two men, Eugene H. Edwards and William T. Livesay. While the two men were being processed in jail, Lebanon police officers investigated the post office and found that someone had tried to get into a window. An officer took paint samples from the window sill and the wire mesh screen as evidence. The next morning, Lebanon police officers took Edward's clothes from him and gave him some new clothes because they wanted to compare the paint chips found in Edwards's clothes to the paint chips at the post office window. The officers had to wait ten hours to seize Edwards's clothes because they did not have any other clothing to give to Edwards.

Edwards and Livesay were tried in federal court on a charge of attempted breaking and entering of a U.S. Post Office. Before trial, Edwards challenged the seizure of his clothes, claiming that they were obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and that the clothes and the paint chips from his clothes should be excluded from the trial. According to Edwards, the officers should have obtained a search warrant from a judge or magistrate before seizing his clothes. The trial court disagreed, the evidence was admitted, and Edwards and Livesay were convicted. The two appealed their convictions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which reversed. Because the arrest and booking process had come to a halt, reasoned the appeals court, the officers had no right to seize Edwards's clothes without a warrant.

The federal government appealed the reversal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Livesay died leaving Edwards as the sole defendant. A divided Court voted 5-4 to reverse the appeals court, effectively reinstating Edwards's conviction.

Justice White wrote the majority's opinion. The Court cited the general rule that searches and seizures should be conducted pursuant to a search warrant. A search warrant may be obtained by a police officer from a judge or magistrate after the police officer has offered enough information to support a probable cause belief that the search or seizure will uncover criminal activity. There are, however, exceptions to the search warrant requirement. One of these exceptions is the search of a person, the person's possessions, and the immediate area of the person at the time of arrest. It also was well settled from prior decisions, noted the Court, that police officers have the right to seize the clothing and belongings of an arrestee upon arriving at jail after the arrest.

The appeals court nevertheless had held that the seizure of Edwards's clothes was illegal under the Fourth Amendment because the "administrative mechanics of arrest" had been completed. Once that procedure was complete, the appeals court had opined, the police officers should have obtained a search warrant for any seizures of evidence. There was, in fact, no extraordinary circumstance that required immediate attention and made an application for a search warrant impracticable. The High Court, however, disagreed with the appeals court's analysis. "[I]t seems to us," Justice White declared for the majority, "that the normal processes incident to arrest and custody had not been completed when Edwards was placed in his cell."

The appeals court had conceded that the police officers had probable cause to believe that Edwards's clothing would yield evidence, and that they were justified in taking the clothes from him when they arrived at jail. The appeals court had held, though, that the long period between arrival at jail and the actual seizure of the clothes was not justified without a warrant. According to the High Court, though, the police officers had a right to take Edwards's clothing as soon as they could find another set of clothing to wear in jail. It would have been quite unreasonable, observed the Court, if the police officers had "stripped [Edwards] of his clothing and left him exposed in his cell throughout the night." Because they made the exchange of clothing as soon as they could, the seizure "was no more than taking from [Edwards] the effects in his immediate possession that constituted evidence of crime."

Since the police already had lawful custody of Edwards and his possessions, the Court pondered how the seizure could have been unreasonable. "[I]t is difficult to perceive what is unreasonable," wondered the Court, "about the police's examining and holding as evidence those personal effects of the accused that they already have in their lawful custody as the result of a lawful arrest." In prior cases, other federal appeals courts had approved of such seizures, and the Court was inclined to agree with those courts. The majority conceded that it was possible for a warrantless, post-arrest search or seizure to violate the warrant requirement of Fourth Amendment. However, citing the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court closed its opinion by describing the shift in the constitutional balance between the rights of accused persons and the rights of police officers after an arrest has been made: "`While the legal arrest of a person should not destroy the privacy of his premises, it does--for at least a reasonable time and to a reasonable extent--take his own privacy out of the realm of protection from police interest in weapons, means of escape, and evidence.'"

Justices Stewart, Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall dissented. In an opinion written by Justice Stewart, the dissenters deplored the majority's understanding of the Fourth Amendment. The issue was not, as the majority claimed, "`whether the Fourth Amendment should be extended'" in the case. To the dissenters, the question was "whether the Fourth Amendment is to be ignored." Citing the Court's own precedent, Stewart observed that "`the most basic constitutional rule'" in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence was that a warrant was required for all searches and seizures unless the search or seizure was one of "`a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.'" The burden was on the government to show that the circumstances of the seizure brought it "within one of the `jealously and carefully drawn' exceptions to the warrant requirement," and, in the opinion of the dissenters, the government had failed to do so.

The dissent acknowledged that a warrantless search or seizure is valid when it is conducted incident to a valid arrest. Under the Court's precedent, though, such searches should be limited in space and time. In Edwards's case, the dissent felt that a time span of ten hours was too remote from the time of arrest, and that the failure to obtain a search warrant prior to the seizure was not justified.

The dissent disagreed also with the Court's philosophical approach to the Fourth Amendment. The majority was analyzing the reasonableness of searches according to "`the acceptability of police conduct, and not on considerations relevant to Fourth Amendment interests.'" This was flawed because, according to dissenting Justice Felix Frankfurter in Chimel v. California (1969), the test of reason that makes a search reasonable "`is the reason underlying and expressed by the Fourth Amendment: the history and the experience which it embodies and the safeguards afforded by it against the evils to which it was a response.'"

The dissent conceded that the seizure in Edwards's case "was not a shocking one," and that the officers had not acted in bad faith. Nonetheless, the dissent warned, such seemingly innocuous transgressions should not be ignored because "`illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing in that way, namely, by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure.'" (quoting Boyd v. United States [1886])

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980United States v. Edwards - Significance, Impact