United States v. Jacobsen
Annotate this Case
466 U.S. 109 (1984)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984)
United States v. Jacobsen
Argued December 7, 1984
Decided April 2, 1984
466 U.S. 109
During their examination of a damaged package, consisting of a cardboard box wrapped in brown paper, the employees of a private freight carrier observed a white powdery substance in the innermost of a series of four plastic bags that had been concealed in a tube inside the package. The employees then notified the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), replaced the plastic bags in the tube, and put the tube back into the box. When a DEA agent arrived, he removed the tube from the box and the plastic bags from the tube, saw the white powder, opened the bags, removed a trace of the powder, subjected it to a field chemical test, and determined it was cocaine. Subsequently, a warrant was obtained to search the place to which the package was addressed, the warrant was executed, and respondents were arrested. After respondents were indicted for possessing an illegal substance with intent to distribute, their motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that the warrant was the product of an illegal search and seizure was denied, and they were tried and convicted. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the validity of the warrant depended on the validity of the warrantless test of the white powder, that the testing constituted a significant expansion of the earlier private search, and that a warrant was required.
Held: The Fourth Amendment did not require the DEA agent to obtain a warrant before testing the white powder. Pp. 466 U. S. 113-126.
(a) The fact that employees of the private carrier independently opened the package and made an examination that might have been impermissible for a Government agent cannot render unreasonable otherwise reasonable official conduct. Whether those employees' invasions of respondents' package were accidental or deliberate or were reasonable or unreasonable, they, because of their private character, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The additional invasions of respondents' privacy by the DEA agent must be tested by the degree to which they exceeded the scope of the private search. Pp. 466 U. S. 113-118.
(b) The DEA agent's removal of the plastic bags from the tube and his visual inspection of their contents enabled him to learn nothing that had not previously been learned during the private search. It infringed no legitimate expectation of privacy, and hence was not a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Although the agent's assertion of dominion and control over the package and its contents constituted a
"seizure," the seizure was reasonable, since it was apparent that the tube and plastic bags contained contraband and little else. In light of what the agent already knew about the contents of the package, it was as if the contents were in plain view. It is constitutionally reasonable for law enforcement officials to seize "effects" that cannot support a justifiable expectation of privacy without a warrant based on probable cause to believe they contain contraband. Pp. 466 U. S. 118-122.
(c) The DEA agent's field test, although exceeding the scope of the private search, was not an unlawful "search" or "seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Governmental conduct that can reveal whether a substance is cocaine, and no other arguably "private" fact, compromises no legitimate privacy interest. United States v. Place, 462 U. S. 696. The destruction of the white powder during the course of the field test was reasonable. The law enforcement interests justifying the procedure were substantial, whereas, because only a trace amount of material was involved and the property had already been lawfully detained, the warrantless "seizure" could have only a de minimis impact on any protected property interest. Under these circumstances, the safeguards of a warrant would only minimally advance Fourth Amendment interests. Pp. 466 U. S. 122-125.
683 F.2d 296, reversed.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in Part III of which WHITE, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 466 U. S. 126. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 466 U. S. 133.