Search, Seizure, and Privacy

By Darien A. McWhirter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER four
Searching and Seizing People in Public Places

DISCUSSION

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court believed that, as a general rule, police need a warrant to seize or search anyone or anything. Over time, however, the Court developed exceptions to this general principle. When it came to searching and seizing (arresting) people who were in public places, the Court ultimately decided a warrant generally would not be required.

The modern law concerning whether police need a search warrant or arrest warrant to search or arrest people in public places begins with the 1967 case of McCray v. Illinois (see p. 60). When a reliable informant told the police that George McCray had been selling drugs and that he had drugs in his possession, the police found McCray and searched him. After finding heroin in his pocket, they arrested him for possession of an illegal drug. The police did not obtain a search warrant before finding and searching George McCray.

Justice Stewart, writing for the majority in this five-to-four decision, stated that in general police do not need a search warrant to search people in a public place, but they do need probable cause. In proving probable cause, however, the police do not have to reveal the name of their informant. George McCray's conviction for possession of an illegal drug was upheld.

Justice Douglas dissented, joined by Justice Brennan, Justice Fortas, and Chief Justice Warren. He argued that police should be required to obtain a search warrant in most cases before they can search people in public places, with exceptions for emergency situations, such as where a crime is committed in the presence of a police officer. The police also should have to produce

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