Chimel v. California (1969) 395 U.S. 752

Fundamental Cases in Criminal Justice by Adam J. McKee

Part II: Police

The following case has been heavily edited and abridged.  The idea is to make it more readable.  As such, it should not be relied upon as binding authority.

This case raises basic questions concerning the permissible scope under the Fourth Amendment of a search incident to a lawful arrest.

 The relevant facts are essentially undisputed. Late in the afternoon of September 13, 1965, three police officers arrived at the Santa Ana, California, home of the petitioner with a warrant authorizing his arrest for the burglary of a coin shop. The officers knocked on the door, identified themselves to the petitioner’s wife, and asked if they might come inside. She ushered them into the house, where they waited 10 or 15 minutes until the petitioner returned home from work. When the petitioner entered the house, one of the officers handed him the arrest warrant and asked for permission to “look around.” The petitioner objected, but was advised that  “on the basis of the lawful arrest,” the officers would nonetheless conduct a search. No search warrant had been issued.

Accompanied by the petitioner’s wife, the officers then looked through the entire three-bedroom house, including the attic, the garage, and a small workshop. In some rooms the search was relatively cursory. In the master bedroom and sewing room, however, the officers directed the petitioner’s wife to open drawers and “to physically move contents of the drawers from side to side so that [they] might view any items that would have come from [the] burglary.” After completing the search, they seized numerous items—primarily coins, but also several medals, tokens, and a few other objects. The entire search took between 45 minutes and an hour.

At the petitioner’s subsequent state trial on two charges of burglary, the items taken from his house were admitted into evidence against him, over his objection that they had been unconstitutionally seized. He was convicted, and the judgments of conviction were affirmed by both the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. Both courts accepted the petitioner’s contention that the arrest warrant was invalid because the supporting affidavit was set out in conclusory terms, but held that since the arresting officers had procured the warrant “in good faith,” and since in any event they had had sufficient information to constitute probable cause for the petitioner’s arrest, that arrest had been lawful. From this conclusion the appellate courts went on to hold that the search of the petitioner’s home had been justified, despite the absence of a search warrant, on the ground that it had been incident to a valid arrest. We granted certiorari in order to consider the petitioner’s substantial constitutional claims.

Without deciding the question, we proceed on the hypothesis that the California courts were correct in holding that the arrest of the petitioner was valid under the Constitution. This brings us directly to the question whether the warrantless search of the petitioner’s entire house can be constitutionally justified as incident to that arrest. The decisions of this Court bearing upon that question have been far from consistent, as even the most cursory review makes evident.

Approval of a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest seems first to have been articulated by the Court in 1914 as dictum in Weeks v. United States, in which the Court stated:

“What then is the present case? Before answering that inquiry specifically, it may be well by a process of exclusion to state what it is not. It is not an assertion of the right on the part of the Government, always recognized under English and American law, to search the person of the accused when legally arrested to discover and seize the fruits or evidences of crime.”

That statement made no reference to any right to search the place where an arrest occurs, but was limited to a right to search the “person.” Eleven years later the case of Carroll v. United States, brought the following embellishment of the Weeks statement:

“When a man is legally arrested for an offense, whatever is found upon his person or in his control which it is unlawful for him to have and which may be used to prove the offense may be seized and held as evidence in the prosecution.”

Still, that assertion too was far from a claim that the “place” where one is arrested may be searched so long as the arrest is valid. Without explanation, however, the principle emerged in expanded form a few months later in Agnello v. United States—although still by way of dictum:

“The right without a search warrant contemporaneously to search persons lawfully arrested while committing crime and to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime as its fruits or as the means by which it was committed, as well as weapons and other things to effect an escape from custody, is not to be doubted.”

And in Marron v. United States, two years later, the dictum of Agnello appeared to be the foundation of the Court’s decision. In that case federal agents had secured a search warrant authorizing the seizure of liquor and certain articles used in its manufacture. When they arrived at the premises to be searched, they saw “that the place was used for retailing and drinking intoxicating liquors.” They proceeded to arrest the person in charge and to execute the warrant. In searching a closet for the items listed in the warrant they came across an incriminating ledger, concededly not covered by the warrant, which they also seized. The Court upheld the seizure of the ledger by holding that since the agents had made a lawful arrest, “they had a right without a warrant contemporaneously to search the place in order to find and seize the things used to carry on the criminal enterprise.”


In that case, officers had obtained a warrant for Harris’ arrest on the basis of his alleged involvement with the cashing and interstate transportation of a forged check. He was arrested in the living room of his four-room apartment, and in an attempt to recover two canceled checks thought to have been used in effecting the forgery, the officers undertook a thorough search of the entire apartment. Inside a desk drawer they found a sealed envelope marked “George Harris, personal papers.” The envelope, which was then torn open, was found to contain altered Selective Service documents, and those documents were used to secure Harris’ conviction for violating the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The Court rejected Harris’ Fourth Amendment claim, sustaining the search as “incident to arrest.”

Only a year after Harris, however, the pendulum swung again. In Trupiano v. United States, agents raided the site of an illicit distillery, saw one of several conspirators operating the still, and arrested him, contemporaneously “seiz[ing] the illicit distillery.” The Court held that the arrest and others made subsequently had been valid, but that the unexplained failure of the agents to procure a search warrant—in spite of the fact that they had had more than enough time before the raid to do so—rendered the search unlawful. The opinion stated:

“It is a cardinal rule that, in seizing goods and articles, law enforcement agents must secure and use search warrants wherever reasonably practicable. . . . This rule rests upon the desirability of having magistrates rather than police officers determine when searches and seizures are permissible and what limitations should be placed upon such activities. . . . To provide the necessary security against unreasonable intrusions upon the private lives of  individuals, the framers of the Fourth Amendment required adherence to judicial processes wherever possible. And subsequent history has confirmed the wisdom of that requirement . . .  A search or seizure without a warrant as an incident to a lawful arrest has always been considered to be a strictly limited right. It grows out of the inherent necessities of the situation at the time of the arrest. But there must be something more in the way of necessity than merely a lawful arrest.”

In 1950, two years after Trupiano, came United States v. Rabinowitz, the decision upon which California primarily relies in the case now before us. In Rabinowitz, federal authorities had been informed that the defendant was dealing in stamps bearing forged overprints. On the basis of that information they secured a warrant for his arrest, which they executed at his one-room business office. At the time of the arrest, the officers “searched the desk, safe, and file cabinets in the office for about an hour and a half,” and seized 573 stamps with forged overprints.  The stamps were admitted into evidence at the defendant’s trial, and this Court affirmed his conviction, rejecting the contention that the warrantless search had been unlawful. The Court held that the search in its entirety fell within the principle giving law enforcement authorities “the right ‘to search the place where the arrest is made in order to find and seize things connected with the crime . . . .'” Harris was regarded as “ample authority” for that conclusion. The opinion rejected the rule of Trupiano that “in seizing goods and articles, law enforcement agents must secure and use search warrants wherever reasonably practicable.” The test, said the Court, “is not whether it is reasonable to procure a search warrant, but whether the search was reasonable.”

Rabinowitz has come to stand for the proposition…that a warrantless search “incident to a lawful arrest” may generally extend to the area that is considered to be in the “possession” or under the “control” of the person arrested. And it was on the basis of that proposition that the California courts upheld the search of the petitioner’s entire house in this case. That doctrine, however, at least in the broad sense in which it was applied by the California courts in this case, can withstand neither historical nor rational analysis.

Even limited to its own facts, the Rabinowitz decision was, as we have seen, hardly founded on an unimpeachable line of authority. As Mr. Justice Frankfurter commented in dissent in that case, the “hint” contained in Weeks was, without persuasive justification, “loosely turned into dictum and finally elevated to a decision.” And the approach taken in cases such as Go-BartLefkowitz, and Trupiano was essentially disregarded by the Rabinowitz Court.

Nor is the rationale by which the State seeks here to sustain the search of the petitioner’s house supported by a reasoned view of the background and purpose of the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Justice Frankfurter wisely pointed out in his Rabinowitz dissent that the Amendment’s proscription of “unreasonable searches and seizures” must be read in light of “the history that gave rise to the words”—a history of “abuses so deeply felt by the Colonies as to be one of the potent causes of the Revolution . . . .” The Amendment was in large part a reaction to the general warrants and warrantless searches that had so alienated the colonists and had helped speed the movement for independence. In the scheme of the Amendment, therefore, the requirement that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,” plays a crucial part. As the Court put it in McDonald v. United States:

“We are not dealing with formalities. The presence of a search warrant serves a high function. Absent some grave emergency, the Fourth Amendment has interposed a magistrate between the citizen and the police. This was done not to shield criminals nor to make the home a safe haven for illegal activities. It was done so that an objective mind might weigh the need to invade that privacy in order to enforce the law. The right of privacy was deemed too precious to entrust to the discretion of those whose job is the detection of crime and the arrest of criminals. . . . And so the Constitution requires a magistrate to pass on the desires of the police before they violate the privacy of the home. We cannot be true to that constitutional requirement and excuse the absence of a search warrant without a showing by those who seek exemption from the constitutional mandate that the exigencies of the situation made that course imperative.”

Even in the Agnello case the Court relied upon the rule that “belief, however well founded, that an article sought is concealed in a dwelling house furnishes no justification for a search of that place without a warrant. And such searches are held unlawful notwithstanding facts unquestionably showing probable cause.” Clearly, the general requirement that a search warrant be obtained is not lightly to be dispensed with, and “the burden is on those seeking [an] exemption [from the requirement] to show the need for it . . . .”

Only last Term in Terry v. Ohio, we emphasized that “the police must, whenever practicable, obtain advance judicial approval of searches and seizures through the warrant procedure,” and that “the scope of [a] search must be ‘strictly tied to and justified by’ the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible. The search undertaken by the officer in that “stop and frisk” case was sustained under that test, because it was no more than a “protective . . . search for weapons.” But in a companion case, Sibron v. New York, we applied the same standard to another set of facts and reached a contrary result, holding that a policeman’s action in thrusting his hand into a suspect’s pocket had been neither motivated by nor limited to the objective of protection. Rather, the search had been made in order to find narcotics, which were in fact found.

A similar analysis underlies the “search incident to arrest” principle, and marks its proper extent. When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer’s safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. A gun on a table or in a drawer in front of one who is arrested can be as dangerous to the arresting officer as one concealed in the clothing of the person arrested. There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area “within his immediate control”—construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.

There is no comparable justification, however, for routinely searching any room other than that in which an arrest occurs—or, for that matter, for searching through all the desk drawers or other closed or concealed areas in that room itself. Such searches, in the absence of well-recognized exceptions, may be made only under the authority of a search warrant. The “adherence to judicial processes” mandated by the Fourth Amendment requires no less.

This is the principle that underlay our decision in Preston v. United States. In that case three men had been arrested in a parked car, which had later been towed to a garage and searched by police. We held the search to have been unlawful under the Fourth Amendment, despite the contention that it had been incidental to a valid arrest. Our reasoning was straightforward:

“The rule allowing contemporaneous searches is justified, for example, by the need to seize weapons and other things which might be used to assault an officer or effect an escape, as well as by the need to prevent the destruction of evidence of the crime—things which might easily happen where the weapon or evidence is on the accused’s person or under his immediate control. But these justifications are absent where a search is remote in time or place from the arrest.”

The same basic principle was reflected in our opinion last Term in Sibron. That opinion dealt with Peters v. New York, as well as with Sibron’s case, and Peters involved a search that we upheld as incident to a proper arrest. We sustained the search, however, only because its scope had been “reasonably limited” by the “need to seize weapons” and “to prevent the destruction of evidence,” to which Preston had referred. We emphasized that the arresting officer “did not engage in an unrestrained and thoroughgoing examination of Peters and his personal effects. He seized him to cut short his flight, and he searched him primarily for weapons.”

It is argued in the present case that it is “reasonable” to search a man’s house when he is arrested in it. But that argument is founded on little more than a subjective view regarding the acceptability of certain sorts of police  conduct, and not on considerations relevant to Fourth Amendment interests. Under such an unconfined analysis, Fourth Amendment protection in this area would approach the evaporation point. It is not easy to explain why, for instance, it is less subjectively “reasonable” to search a man’s house when he is arrested on his front lawn—or just down the street—than it is when he happens to be in the house at the time of arrest. As Mr. Justice Frankfurter put it:

“To say that the search must be reasonable is to require some criterion of reason. It is no guide at all either for a jury or for district judges or the police to say that an ‘unreasonable search’ is forbidden—that the search must be reasonable. What is the test of reason which makes a search reasonable? The test 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.”

Thus, although “the recurring questions of the reasonableness of searches” depend upon “the facts and circumstances—the total atmosphere of the case,” those facts and circumstances must be viewed in the light of established Fourth Amendment principles.

It would be possible, of course, to draw a line between Rabinowitz and Harris on the one hand, and this case on the other. For Rabinowitz involved a single room, and Harris a four-room apartment, while in the case before us an entire house was searched. But such a distinction would be highly artificial. The rationale that allowed the searches and seizures in Rabinowitz and Harris would allow the searches and seizures in this case. No consideration relevant to the Fourth Amendment suggests any point of rational limitation, once the search is allowed to go beyond the area from which the person arrested might obtain weapons or evidentiary items. The only reasoned distinction is one between a search of the person arrested and the area within his reach on the one hand, and more extensive searches on the other.

The petitioner correctly points out that one result of decisions such as Rabinowitz and Harris is to give law enforcement officials the opportunity to engage in searches not justified by probable cause, by the simple expedient of arranging to arrest suspects at home rather than elsewhere. We do not suggest that the petitioner is necessarily correct in his assertion that such a strategy was utilized here, but the fact remains that had he been arrested earlier in the day, at his place of employment rather than at home, no search of his house could have been made without a search warrant. In any event, even apart from the possibility of such police tactics, the general point so forcefully made by Judge Learned Hand in United States v. Kirschenblatt remains:

“After arresting a man in his house, to rummage at will among his papers in search of whatever will convict him, appears to us to be indistinguishable from what might be done under a general warrant; indeed, the warrant would give more protection, for presumably it must be issued by a magistrate. True, by hypothesis the power would not exist, if the supposed offender were not found on the premises; but it is small consolation to know that one’s papers are safe only so long as one is not at home.”

Rabinowitz and Harris have been the subject of critical commentary for many years, and have been relied  upon less and less in our own decisions. It is time, for the reasons we have stated, to hold that on their own facts, and insofar as the principles they stand for are inconsistent with those that we have endorsed today, they are no longer to be followed.

Application of sound Fourth Amendment principles to the facts of this case produces a clear result. The search here went far beyond the petitioner’s person and the area from within which he might have obtained either a weapon or something that could have been used as evidence against him. There was no constitutional justification, in the absence of a search warrant, for extending the search beyond that area. The scope of the search was, therefore, “unreasonable” under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and the petitioner’s conviction cannot stand.


Learn More

On This Site

Criminal Justice: An Overview of the System » Section 2.4: The Civil Rights Revolution

Policing » Section 3.2

On Other Sites

Read the full text of Chimel v. California (1969) on Justia.


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Last Modified: 04/30/2021

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