United States v. Johns

Last updated
United States v. Johns
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 28, 1984
Decided January 21, 1985
Full case nameUnited States v. Johns
Citations 469 U.S. 478 ( more )
105 S. Ct. 881; 83 L. Ed. 2d 890; 53 U.S.L.W. 4126
Prior history Trial court reversed and remanded, 707 F.2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1983)
The odor of marijuana gave the officers probable cause, and the three day delay in conducting the search was not unreasonable.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr.  · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall  · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr.  · William Rehnquist
John P. Stevens  · Sandra Day O'Connor
Case opinions
Majority O'Connor, joined by Burger, White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, Stevens
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. IV

United States v. Johns, 469 U.S. 478 (1985), was a United States Supreme Court criminal law case holding that a three-day delay in searching a motor vehicle under government control did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Search and seizure police power

Search and Seizure is a procedure used in many civil law and common law legal systems by which police or other authorities and their agents, who, suspecting that a crime has been committed, commence a search of a person's property and confiscate any relevant evidence found in connection to the crime.

Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. It prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. In addition, it sets requirements for issuing warrants: warrants must be issued by a judge or magistrate, justified by probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and must particularly describe the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

United States Constitution Supreme law of the United States of America

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. The Constitution, originally comprising seven articles, delineates the national frame of government. Its first three articles embody the doctrine of the separation of powers, whereby the federal government is divided into three branches: the legislative, consisting of the bicameral Congress ; the executive, consisting of the President ; and the judicial, consisting of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Articles Four, Five and Six embody concepts of federalism, describing the rights and responsibilities of state governments, the states in relationship to the federal government, and the shared process of constitutional amendment. Article Seven establishes the procedure subsequently used by the thirteen States to ratify it. It is regarded as the oldest written and codified national constitution in force.



Johns involved a United States Customs drug smuggling investigation in Arizona where Customs officers followed two pickup trucks to a remote desert airstrip, and set up surveillance. Two small airplanes landed and departed. The officers walked up on the trucks and could smell marijuana. In the back of the trucks were what obviously were bales of marijuana wrapped in dark green plastic bags and sealed with tape. Several men were arrested at the scene. Johns and another were the pilots, and they were arrested when they landed. The trucks were not searched at the scene. Instead, they were removed to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warehouse in Tucson. Three days later, the officers took samples of the marijuana.

Illegal drug trade global black market

The illegal drug trade or drug trafficking is a global black market dedicated to the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of drugs that are subject to drug prohibition laws. Most jurisdictions prohibit trade, except under license, of many types of drugs through the use of drug prohibition laws.

Arizona state of the United States of America

Arizona is a state in the southwestern region of the United States. It is also part of the Western and the Mountain states. It is the sixth largest and the 14th most populous of the 50 states. Its capital and largest city is Phoenix. Arizona shares the Four Corners region with Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico; its other neighboring states are Nevada and California to the west and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California to the south and southwest.

Drug Enforcement Administration United States federal law enforcement agency

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a United States federal law enforcement agency under the United States Department of Justice, tasked with combating drug smuggling and distribution within the United States. The DEA is the lead agency for domestic enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, sharing concurrent jurisdiction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It has sole responsibility for coordinating and pursuing US drug investigations both domestic and abroad.

The district court ordered suppression of the evidence because of the unreasonableness of the delay, and the government appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, [1] holding that the search of the vehicles three days later was unreasonable under United States v. Ross (1982). [2]

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the districts of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is a U.S. Federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in the following districts:

United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982), was a search and seizure case argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. The high court was asked to decide if a legal warrantless search of an automobile allows closed containers found in the vehicle to be searched as well. The appeals court had previously ruled that opening and searching the closed portable containers without a warrant was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, even though the warrantless vehicle search was permissible due to existing precedent.

Opinion of the Court

The Supreme Court reversed in an opinion by Justice O'Connor. In resisting the government's petition for certiorari, the defendants raised a separate ground to sustain the judgment below. They argued that the officers lacked probable cause for the arrest before they saw the distinctive packaging of the marijuana bales. The Court dealt with that issue first and held that, while the officers on the ground could not see all that transpired between the airplanes and the trucks parked nearby, the obvious smell of the marijuana when they approached the trucks gave them probable cause before they even saw the distinctive packaging. This probable cause thus extended to both the vehicles and the packages under Ross.

Sandra Day OConnor Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

Sandra Day O'Connor is a retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who served from her appointment in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan until her retirement in 2006. She was the first woman to serve on the Court.

Certiorari, often abbreviated cert. in the United States, is a process for seeking judicial review and a writ issued by a court that agrees to review. A certiorari is issued by a superior court, directing an inferior court, tribunal, or other public authority to send the record of a proceeding for review.

In United States criminal law, probable cause is the standard by which police authorities have reason to obtain a warrant for the arrest of a suspected criminal or the issuing of a search warrant. It is also the standard by which grand juries issue criminal indictments. The principle behind the standard is to limit the power of authorities to perform random or abusive searches, and to promote lawful evidence gathering and procedural form during criminal arrest and prosecution. The standard also applies to personal or property searches.

Turning to the central issue of the case, the Court held that the three-day delay in conducting the search was not unreasonable. First, the Court noted that "our previous decisions indicate that the officers acted permissibly by waiting until they returned to DEA headquarters before they searched the vehicles and removed their contents... . There is no requirement that the warrantless search of a vehicle occur contemporaneously with its lawful seizure." Second, while Ross suggests that a vehicle search should occur immediately or shortly after seizure, it does not require any such limitation on a vehicle search. In fact, a second search of the vehicle in Ross occurred at the stationhouse after the first search on the street. The Court stated that it is inconsistent with the rationale of the automobile exception to make such a limitation. Third, the Court said that requiring an immediate search on the spot at the time of seizure would not further any privacy interests. The Court has consistently permitted delayed searches where the seizure was based on probable cause. Once the vehicle is seized, exigent circumstances for the search are no longer required if it existed at the time of seizure.

A search warrant is a court order that a magistrate or judge issues to authorize law enforcement officers to conduct a search of a person, location, or vehicle for evidence of a crime and to confiscate any evidence they find. In most countries a search warrant cannot be issued in aid of civil process.

Motor vehicle exception

The motor vehicle exception is a legal rule in the United States that modifies the normal probable cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and, when applicable, allows a police officer to search a motor vehicle without a search warrant.

See also

In the United States, the exclusionary rule is a legal rule, based on constitutional law, that prevents evidence collected or analyzed in violation of the defendant's constitutional rights from being used in a court of law. This may be considered an example of a prophylactic rule formulated by the judiciary in order to protect a constitutional right. The exclusionary rule may also, in some circumstances at least, be considered to follow directly from the constitutional language, such as the Fifth Amendment's command that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself" and that no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law".

Related Research Articles

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), was a decision by the United States Supreme Court which held that the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures is not violated when a police officer stops a suspect on the street and frisks him or her without probable cause to arrest, if the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime and has a reasonable belief that the person "may be armed and presently dangerous."

New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States addressing the constitutionality of a search of a public high school student for contraband after she was caught smoking. A subsequent search of her purse revealed drug paraphernalia, marijuana, and documentation of drug sales. She was charged as a juvenile for the drugs and paraphernalia found in the search. She fought the search, claiming it violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6–3 ruling, held that the search by the Piscataway Township Schools was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983), was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States which held that a sniff of luggage in a public place, by a police dog specially trained to detect the odor of narcotics, was not a "search" under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court reasoned that the sniff of a dog is sui generis, intended to disclose only the presence or absence of narcotics. Because a dog sniff is such a limited test, the Court carved out this exception from the broad category of "searches" for which a warrant is generally required.

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard of proof in United States law that is less than probable cause, the legal standard for arrests and warrants, but more than an "inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or 'hunch'"; it must be based on "specific and articulable facts", "taken together with rational inferences from those facts", and the suspicion must be associated with the specific individual. If police additionally have reasonable suspicion that a person so detained is armed and dangerous, they may "frisk" the person for weapons, but not for contraband like drugs. Reasonable suspicion is evaluated using the "reasonable person" or "reasonable officer" standard, in which said person in the same circumstances could reasonably suspect a person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity; it depends upon the totality of circumstances, and can result from a combination of particular facts, even if each is individually innocuous.

United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259 (1990), was a United States Supreme Court decision that determined that Fourth Amendment protections do not apply to searches and seizures by United States agents of property owned by a nonresident alien in a foreign country.

Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001), was a United States Supreme Court decision which held that a person's Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the subject is arrested for driving without a seatbelt. The court ruled that such an arrest for a misdemeanor that is punishable only by a fine does not constitute an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Ker v. California, 374 U.S. 23 (1963), was a case before the United States Supreme Court, which incorporated the Fourth Amendment's protections against illegal search and seizure. The case was decided on June 10, 1963, by a vote of 5-4.

Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927 (1995), is a United States Supreme Court decision in which the Court held that police officers must "knock and announce" before entering a house to serve a warrant.

New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that when a police officer has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, the officer may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile. Therefore, Belton extended the so-called "Chimel rule" of searches incident to a lawful arrest, established in Chimel v. California (1969), to vehicles. The Supreme Court sought to establish bright line rules to govern vehicle search incident to eliminate some confusion in the cases.

Torres v. Puerto Rico, 442 U.S. 465 (1979), was a United States Supreme Court case holding that the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure applies to Puerto Rico.

Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court applied the Carroll doctrine in a case with a significant factual difference—the search took place after the vehicle was moved to the stationhouse. The search was thus delayed and did not take place on the highway as in Carroll. After a gas station robbery, a vehicle fitting the description of the robbers' car was stopped. Inside were people wearing clothing matching the description of that worn by the robbers. They were arrested, and the car was taken to the police station where it was later searched.

Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266 (1973), was a United States Supreme Court case.

United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984), was a United States Supreme Court decision related to the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. It held that use of an electronic beeper device to monitor a can of ether without a warrant constituted an unlawful search. However, the Court upheld the conviction of Karo and his accomplices, stating that the warrant affidavit contained enough information not derived from the unlawful use of the beeper to provide sufficient basis for probable cause.

Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), was a unanimous United States Supreme Court decision that "declared that any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop."

<i>Florida v. Jardines</i> United States Supreme Court case

Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013), is a decision by the United States Supreme Court which held that police use of a trained detection dog to sniff for narcotics on the front porch of a private home is a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and therefore, without consent, requires both probable cause and a search warrant.


  1. United States v. Johns, 707F.2d1093 ( 9th Cir. 1983).
  2. United States v. Ross , 456 U.S. 798 (1982).