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Arkansas v. Sanders


The Supreme Court accepted Arkansas v. Sanders to clarify and extend United States v. Chadwick (1977) regarding the matter of warrantless searches of luggage or containers seized during searches of lawfully detained vehicles. As with any personal, private, closed container not being transported but seized during the course of a normal police investigation, a search could only be undertaken with a warrant if a vehicle had been stopped. While exigent circumstances permit police to conduct warrantless searches, a stopped automobile did not qualify as exigent circumstances where evidence was in danger of being destroyed or lost.

Little Rock police received a tip from an informant that the respondent, Lonnie Sanders, would arrive at the local municipal airport carrying a green suitcase which contained marijuana. Because of the tip and their knowledge of Sanders's criminal activity, police set up a three-man surveillance team at the airport. When passengers departed from the afternoon flight into the Little Rock Municipal Airport, surveillance officers witnessed Sanders retrieve a green suitcase from the airline baggage service and, after meeting David Rambo, pass the suitcase to him. Both men were detained after police stopped the taxi they were in several blocks from the airport. When officers asked the taxi driver to open the trunk of the cab, the police discovered an unlocked green suitcase containing 9.3 pounds of marijuana. Sanders and Rambo were arrested and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to deliver.

Before his trial was adjudicated in the Arkansas court, Sanders moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the suitcase; he believed he had been subjected to an unreasonable search. Since the police did not have a warrant to open the green suitcase, Sanders felt his rights were violated under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. This motion was denied without comment by the trial court, and, after conviction by a jury, the court sentenced Sanders to ten years in prison and a fine of $15,000. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Arkansas reversed the conviction, ruling that the trial court should have suppressed the marijuana as evidence because it was obtained through an unlawful search of the suitcase. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.

In the majority opinion, delivered by Justice Powell, the question posed by the case centered about whether, in absence of urgent need or critical circumstances, the police were obliged to conduct a warrantless search of personal luggage taken from an automobile even if the vehicle was properly stopped. The Court ruled that Fourteenth Amendment protection from unreasonable search extended to personal luggage. Justice Burger, joined by Stevens, concurred in the judgment but expressed the view that the case did not invoke the "automobile" exception. Because the Court established in earlier rulings--United States v. Chadwick, Chambers v. Maroney (1970), and Carroll v. United States (1925)--that the "inherent mobility of automobiles often makes it impracticable to obtain a warrant," police are not required to obtain a warrant if a motorist is legally stopped and subsequently "searched on the street." Furthermore, Justice Blackmun joined by Justice Rehnquist, dissented from the Court's opinion. Their view was that personal property could be seized and searched without a warrant if it was found in an automobile that was lawfully seized and searched.

Rights guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment protect the privacy and property of individuals by ensuring "the right of the people to be secured in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." By the late 1970s, the Court had also established that Fourth Amendment rights included the requirement that searches of private property had to be performed pursuant to a search warrant issued in compliance with the Warrant Clause. The Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment provides that warrants cannot be issued unless there is probable cause and if evidence of a criminal act may only be obtained through search and seizure. However, there are permissible exceptions: if there exists the potential of danger to law enforcement officers or if the risk of loss or destruction of evidence, as determined by a neutral magistrate, outweighs the rationale for prior recourse. In Arkansas v. Sanders, such reasons were not in evidence. The Court believed Little Rock police should have obtained a warrant before searching Sanders' luggage even though the suitcase was taken from an automobile that had been properly stopped and searched for contraband. Police had already detained the individuals suspected of criminal activity and had already secured the suitcase; there appeared to be no danger of loss of evidence or risk to law enforcement.

The attorney for the state of Arkansas argued that the search and seizure by Little Rock police did not require a warrant because their conduct was consistent with legal exceptions to search and seizure rights delineated in the Fourth Amendment. One legally permissible deviation, the "automobile exception," permitted police to stop an automobile if they had probable cause to believe it contained contraband or evidence of a crime. Counsel explained that police acted in accordance with that exception based on a reliable tip from an informant which provided an exact description of Sanders, his arrival time and location, the appearance of the suitcase, and its contents. Nevertheless, the Court held that officers were required to secure a warrant to search Sanders' luggage since there was nothing in the circumstances that made obtaining a search warrant impractical. The Court expressed that the warrantless search of Sanders' suitcase was also improper because the rationale pertaining to the automobile exception (the risk of losing evidence due to the mobility of an automobile) did not apply to searches of personal luggage already taken out from an automobile and secured by police. The majority opinion also reasoned that Fourth Amendment warrant requirements apply to personal luggage taken from an automobile to the same degree they apply to luggage in other locations. (The only notable exception is when the contents of containers and packages can be inferred from their outward appearance and are found by police during normal conduct of their duty.)

In a separate, concurring opinion, Chief Justice Burger and Justice Stevens pointed out that the Court's opinion was unnecessarily broad and obscured because the facts of the case did not invoke the automobile exception. Minority justices agreed that the police officers, acting under probable cause, should have obtained a search warrant; however, the fact that the suitcase was in an automobile was completely irrelevant to the case. The security of the luggage being transported by Sanders at the time of his arrest was at issue, not the automobile in which it was being carried. Burger stressed that, as in United States v. Chadwick, the relationship between contraband and the automobile was purely coincidental. The crux of the Sanders decision should, therefore, have addressed Sanders's right to privacy. His expectation of privacy was not diminished since the arrest happened in a public place where his right to privacy mandated a search warrant. Sanders had a right to expect that his luggage would not, without his approval, be exposed to the demands of police in public.

Justice Blackmun also argued that the Court has not distinguished between the lesser intrusion of a seizure and the greater intrusion of a search with respect to automobiles or persons subject to custodial arrest. The minority opinion reasoned that the Court's judgment should have distinguished between a case in which there was probable cause to search the car and its contents as a whole and a case in which there was probable cause to search for a specific item within the car, such as Sanders's luggage. Thus, the dissenting justices concluded that the automobile exception did not apply. The intrusion of privacy (and consequently the need for protection under the Fourteenth Amendment's Warrant Clause) was greater when police searched the entire interior area of the car than when they confined their search to a single suitcase. The dissenting opinion went on to explain that a police officer, when approaching an automobile, must understand that, in three distinct ways, an individual has possession rights with respect to personal property. If there was probable cause to arrest the occupant, then according to the Court's decision in Chimel v. California (1969), an officer may search for objects within immediate control of the vehicle's occupants, with or without probable cause. Secondly, if there was probable cause to search the automobile itself, the officer may be entitled to do so, with or without a warrant. And finally, the criteria specified by the Court in the Chadwick decision applied. Any object found in the car outside the immediate control of the occupants, such as Sanders's suitcase, in the absence of exigent circumstances, could not be searched without a warrant.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Arkansas v. Sanders - Significance, Impact