Carroll v. United States

267 U.S. 132

Case Year: 1925

Case Ruling: 7-2, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Taft

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brandeis, Butler, Holmes, McKenna, Sanford, VanDevanter


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: McReynolds

Joiner(s): Sutherland

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


George Carroll and John Kiro were convicted of transporting sixty-eight quarts of bonded whisky and gin in an automobile in violation of the National Prohibition Act (known also as Volstead Act). Because this was their first offense under the law, the crime was classified as a misdemeanor.

The events leading up to their arrest began on September 29, 1921, when federal prohibition agents Cronenwett and Scully set up a sting operation in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, apartment. The federal agents let it be known that they were interested in buying illegal liquor. Carroll and Kiro came to the apartment and offered to sell them three cases of whisky for $130 per case. An agreement was reached, and Carrol and Kiro said they would bring the whisky to the apartment the next day. The next day, however, the two, perhaps having become suspicious of their customers, did not show up.

Cronenwett and Scully went back to their normal routine of patrolling the highway from Detroit to Grand Rapids looking for liquor runners. Alcohol was commonly smuggled from Canada into the interior of the United States along this route. On October 6, federal agents saw an Oldsmobile roadster travelling east toward Detroit. Cronenwett and Scully recognized the car as the one driven by Carroll and Kiro when the two came to the apartment to negotiate the whisky sale. They followed the car as far as East Lansing and then lost it. On October 15, Cronenwett and Scully were again on regular patrol. They saw the same Oldsmobile heading toward Grand Rapids. The officers followed the car for a time and then pulled it over and searched it. They found sixty-eight bottles of whisky and gin. During the search, Carroll turned to Cronenwett and said, "Take the liquor and give us one more chance and I will make it right with you." He then pulled out a roll of bills. The bribery attempt was unsuccessful. Carroll and Kiro were placed under arrest. At their trial and on appeal, the accused liquor runners claimed that their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure had been violated. The officers, they claimed, lacked a valid justification for pulling them over and searching the car.



... The intent of Congress to make a distinction between the necessity for a search warrant in the searching of private dwellings and in that of automobiles and other road vehicles in the enforcement of the Prohibition Act is... clearly established by the legislative history.... Is such a distinction consistent with the Fourth Amendment? We think that it is. The Fourth Amendment does not denounce all searches or seizures, but only such as are unreasonableOn reason and authority the true rule is that if the search and seizure without a warrant are made upon probable cause, that is, upon a belief, reasonably arising out of circumstances known to the seizing officer, that an automobile or other vehicle contains that which by law is subject to seizure and destruction, the search and seizure are valid. The Fourth Amendment is to be construed in the light of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when it was adopted, and in a manner which will conserve public interests as well as the interests and rights of individual citizens....

... [T]he guaranty of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures by the Fourth Amendment has been construed, practically since the beginning of the government, as recognizing a necessary difference between a search of a store, dwelling house, or other structure in respect of which a proper official warrant readily may be obtained and a search of a ship, motor boat, wagon, or automobile for contraband goods, where it is not practicable to secure a warrant, because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.

Having thus established that contraband goods concealed and illegally transported in an automobile or other vehicle may be searched for without a warrant, we come now to consider under what circumstances such search may be made. It would be intolerable and unreasonable if a prohibition agent were authorized to stop every automobile on the chance of finding liquor, and thus subject all persons lawfully using the highways to the inconvenience and indignity of such a search. Travelers may be so stopped in crossing an international boundary because of national self-protection reasonably requiring one entering the country to identify himself as entitled to come in, and his belongings as effects which may be lawfully brought in. But those lawfully within the country, entitled to use the public highways, have a right to free passage without interruption or search unless there is known to a competent official, authorized to search, probable cause for believing that their vehicles are carrying contraband or illegal merchandise. Section 26, title 2, of the National Prohibition Act, like the second section of the act of 1789, for the searching of vessels, like the provisions of the act of 1815, and section 3601, Revised Statutes, for searching vehicles for smuggled goods, and like the act of 1822, and that of 1834 and section 2140, R. S., and the act of 1917 for the search of vehicles and automobiles for liquor smuggled into the Indian country, was enacted primarily to accomplish the seizure and destruction of contraband goods; secondly, the automobile was to be forfeited; and, thirdly, the driver was to be arrested. Under section 29, title 2, of the act the latter might be punished by not more than $500 fine for the first offense, not more than $1,000 fine and 90 days' imprisonment for the second offense, and by a fine of $500 or more and by not more than 2 years' imprisonment for the third offense. Thus he is to be arrested for a misdemeanor for his first and second offenses, and for a felony if he offends the third time.

The main purpose of the act obviously was to deal with the liquor and its transportation, and to destroy it. The mere manufacture of liquor can do little to defeat the policy of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Prohibition Act, unless the forbidden product can be distributed for illegal sale and use. Section 26 was intended to reach and destroy the forbidden liquor in transportation and the provisions for forfeiture of the vehicle and the arrest of the transporter were incidental. The rule for determining what may be required before a seizure may be made by a competent seizing official is not to be determined by the character of the penalty to which the transporter may be subjected....

It follows from this that, if an officer seizes an automobile or the liquor in it without a warrant, and the facts as subsequently developed do not justify a judgment of condemnation and forfeiture, the officer may escape costs or a suit for damages by a showing that he had reasonable or probable cause for the seizure.... The measure of legality of such a seizure is, therefore, that the seizing officer shall have reasonable or probable cause for believing that the automobile which he stops and seizes has contraband liquor therein which is being illegally transported....

Such a rule fulfills the guaranty of the Fourth Amendment. In cases where the securing of a warrant is reasonably practicable, it must be used and when properly supported by affidavit and issued after judicial approval protects the seizing officer against a suit for damages. In cases where seizure is impossible except without warrant, the seizing officer acts unlawfully and at his peril unless he can show the court probable cause....

But we are pressed with the argument that if the search of the automobile discloses the presence of liquor and leads under the statute to the arrest of the person in charge of the automobile, the right of seizure should be limited by the common-law rule as to the circumstances justifying an arrest without a warrant for a misdemeanor. The usual rule is that a police officer may arrest without warrant one believed by the officer upon reasonable cause to have been guilty of a felony, and that he may only arrest without a warrant one guilty of a misdemeanor if committed in his presence....

The reason for arrest for misdemeanors without warrant at common law was promptly to suppress breaches of the peace,... while the reason for arrest without warrant on a reliable report of a felony was because the public safety and the due apprehension of criminals charged with heinous offenses required that such arrests should be made at once without warrant.... The argument for defendants is that, as the misdemeanor to justify arrest without warrant must be committed in the presence of the police officer, the offense is not committed in his presence unless he can by his senses detect that the liquor is being transported, no matter how reliable his previous information by which he can identify the automobile as loaded with it....

We do not think such a nice distinction is applicable in the present case. 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.... The argument of defendants is based on the theory that the seizure in this case can only be thus justified. If their theory were sound, their conclusion would be. The validity of the seizure then would turn wholly on the validity of the arrest without a seizure. But the theory is unsound. The right to search and the validity of the seizure are not dependent on the right to arrest. They are dependent on the reasonable cause the seizing officer has for belief that the contents of the automobile offend against the law....

This conclusion is in keeping with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment and the principles of search and seizure of contraband forfeitable property; and it is a wise one because it leaves the rule one which is easily applied and understood and is uniform....

Finally, was there probable cause?...

We know in this way that Grand Rapids is about 152 miles from Detroit, and that Detroit and its neighborhood along the Detroit river, which is the international boundary, is one of the most active centers for introducing illegally into this country spirituous liquors for distribution into the interior. It is obvious from the evidence that the prohibition agents were engaged in a regular patrol along the important highways from Detroit to Grand Rapids to stop and seize liquor carried in automobiles. They knew or had convincing evidence to make them believe that the Carroll boys, as they called them, were so-called 'bootleggers' in Grand Rapids; i.e., that they were engaged in plying the unlawful trade of selling such liquor in that city. The officers had soon after noted their going from Grand Rapids half way to Detroit, and attempted to follow them to that city to see where they went, but they escaped observation. Two months later these officers suddenly met the same men on their way westward presumably from Detroit. The partners in the original combination to sell liquor in Grand Rapids were together in the same automobile they had been in the night when they tried to furnish the whisky to the officers, which was thus identified as part of the firm equipment. They were coming from the direction of the great source of supply for their stock to Grand Rapids, where they plied their trade. That the officers, when they saw the defendants, believed that they were carrying liquor, we can have no doubt, and we think it is equally clear that they had reasonable cause for thinking so. Emphasis is put by defendants' counsel on the statement made by one of the officers that they were not looking for defendants at the particular time when they appeared. We do not perceive that it has any weight. As soon as they did appear, the officers were entitled to use their reasoning faculties upon all the facts of which they had previous knowledge in respect to the defendants.

The necessity for probable cause in justifying seizures on land or sea, in making arrests without warrant for past felonies, and in malicious prosecution and false imprisonment cases has led to frequent definition of the phrase. In Stacey v. Emery, a suit for damages for seizure by a collector, this court defined probable cause as follows:

'If the facts and circumstances before the officer are such as to warrant a man of prudence and caution in believing that the offense has been committed, it is sufficient.'

... In the light of... what is shown by this record, it is clear the officers here had justification for the search and seizure. This is to say that the facts and circumstances within their knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that intoxicating liquor was being transported in the automobile which they stopped and searched.

The judgment is affirmed.


1. The damnable character of the 'bootlegger's' business should not close our eyes to the mischief which will surely follow any attempt to destroy it by unwarranted methods....

While quietly driving an ordinary automobile along a much frequented public road, plaintiffs in error were arrested by federal officers without a warrant and upon mere suspicion--ill-founded, as I think. The officers then searched the machine and discovered carefully secreted whisky, which was seized and thereafter used as evidence against plaintiffs in error when on trial for transporting intoxicating liquor contrary to the Volstead Act. They maintain that both arrest and seizure were unlawful and that use of the liquor as evidence violated their constitutional rights....

2. As the Volstead Act contains no definite grant of authority to arrest upon suspicion and without warrant for a first offense, we come to inquire whether such authority can be inferred from its provisions. Unless the statute which creates a misdemeanor contains some clear provision to the contrary, suspicion that it is being violated will not justify an arrest. Criminal statutes must be strictly construed and applied, in harmony with rules of the common law. United States v. Harris. And the well-settled doctrine is that an arrest for a misdemeanor may not be made without a warrant unless the offense is committed in the officer's presence....

3. The Volstead Act contains no provision which annuls the accepted common-law rule or discloses definite intent to authorize arrests without warrant for misdemeanors not committed in the officer's presence....

The validity of the seizure under consideration depends on the legality of the arrest. This did not follow the seizure, but the reverse is true. Plaintiffs in error were first brought within the officers' power, and, while therein, the seizure took place. If an officer, upon mere suspicion of a misdemeanor, may stop one on the public highway, take articles away from him and thereafter use them as evidence to convict him of crime, what becomes of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments?...

The arrest of plaintiffs in error was unauthorized, illegal, and violated the guaranty of due process given by the Fifth Amendment. The liquor offered in evidence was obtained by the search which followed this arrest and was therefore obtained in violation of their constitutional rights. Articles found upon or in the control of one lawfully arrested may be used as evidence for certain purposes, but not at all when secured by the unlawful action of a federal officer.

4.The facts known by the officers who arrested plaintiffs in error were wholly insufficient to create a reasonable belief that they were transporting liquor contrary to law....

5. When Congress has intended that seizures or arrests might be made upon suspicion it has been careful to sayso. The history and terms of the Volstead Act are not consistent with the suggestion that it was the purpose of Congress to grant the power here claimed for enforcement officers. The facts known when the arrest occurred were wholly insufficient to engender reasonable belief that plaintiffs in error were committing a misdemeanor, and the legality of the arrest cannot be supported by facts ascertained through the search which followed. To me it seems clear enough that the judgment should be reversed.

I am authorized to say that MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND concurs in this opinion.