WALTER V. UNITED STATES, 447 U. S. 649 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Walter v. United States, 447 U.S. 649 (1980)

Walter v. United States

No. 79-67

Argued February 26, 1980

Decided June 20, 1980*

447 U.S. 649


When an interstate shipment of several securely sealed packages containing 8-millimeter films depicting homosexual activities was mistakenly delivered by a private carrier to a third party rather than to the consignee, employees of the third party opened each of the packages, finding individual film boxes, on one side of which were suggestive drawings, and on the other were explicit descriptions of the contents. One employee opened one or two of the boxes and attempted without success to view portions of the film by holding it up to the light. After the Federal Bureau of Investigation was notified and picked up the packages, agents viewed the films with a projector without first making any effort to obtain a warrant or to communicate with the consignor or the consignee of the shipment. Thereafter, petitioners were indicted on federal obscenity charges relating to the interstate transportation of certain of the films in the shipment, a motion to suppress and return the films was denied, and petitioners were convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and rehearing was denied.

Held: The judgments are reversed. Pp. 447 U. S. 653-660; 447 U. S. 660-662.

Certiorari dismissed in part; 592 F.2d 788 and 597 F.2d 63, reversed.

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, joined by MR. JUSTICE STEWART, concluded that, even though the nature of the contents of the films was indicated by descriptive material on their individual containers, the Government's unauthorized screening of the films constituted an unreasonable invasion of their owner's constitutionally protected interest in privacy. It was a search; there was no warrant; the owner had not consented; and there were no exigent circumstances. Cf. Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U. S. 557, 394 U. S. 569 (STEWART, J., concurring in result). Pp. 447 U. S. 653-660.

(a) The fact that FBI agents were lawfully in possession of the boxes of film did not give them authority to search their contents. An officer's authority to possess a package is distinct from his authority to examine its contents, and when the contents of the package are books or other materials arguably protected by the First Amendment, and the basis

Page 447 U. S. 650

for the seizure is disapproval of the message contained therein, it is especially important that the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement be scrupulously observed. Pp. 447 U. S. 654-655.

(b) Nor does the fact that the packages and one or more of the boxes had been opened by a private party before they were acquired by the FBI excuse the failure to obtain a search warrant. Even though some circumstances -- for example, if the results of the private search are in plain view when materials are turned over to the Government -- may justify the Government's reexamination of the materials, the Government may not exceed the scope of the private search unless it has the right to make an independent search. Here, the private party had not actually viewed the films, and prior to the Government screening one could only draw inferences about what was on the films. Thus, the projection of the films was a significant expansion of the previous search by a private party, and therefore must be characterized as a separate search, which was not supported by any exigency or by a warrant even though one could have easily been obtained. Pp. 447 U. S. 656-657.

(c) The fact that the cartons of film boxes, which cartons were securely wrapped and had no markings indicating the character of their contents, were unexpectedly opened by a third party before the shipment was delivered to its intended consignee, thus uncovering the descriptive labels on the film boxes, does not alter the consignor's legitimate expectation of privacy in the films. The private search merely frustrated that expectation in part, and did not strip the remaining unfrustrated portion of that expectation of all Fourth Amendment protection. Pp. 447 U. S. 658-659.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, joined by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, concurring in part and in the judgment, agreed that the Government's warrantless projection of the films constituted a search that infringed petitioners' Fourth Amendment interests even though the Government had acquired the films from a private party, but disagreed with the suggestion that it is an open question whether the Government's projection of the films would have infringed any Fourth Amendment interest if private parties had projected the films before turning them over to the Government. The notion that private searches insulate from Fourth Amendment scrutiny subsequent governmental searches of the same or lesser scope is inconsistent with traditional Fourth Amendment principles, and even if the private parties in this action had projected the films before turning them over to the Government, the Government still would have been required to obtain a warrant for its subsequent screening of them. Pp. 447 U. S. 660-662

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL concurred in the judgment.

Page 447 U. S. 651

STEVENS, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which STEWART, J., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and in the judgment, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 447 U. S. 660. MARSHALL, J., concurred in the judgment. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 447 U. S. 662.

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