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Law School Case Brief

Abel v. United States - 362 U.S. 217, 80 S. Ct. 683 (1960)


There is nothing unlawful under U.S. Const. amend. IV in the appropriation by the United States of property abandoned in a hotel room by an alien arrested on an administrative warrant. 


Defendant Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (a.k.a. Mark, a.k.a. Martin Collins and Emil R. Goldfus) was suspected of espionage by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), but the evidence was insufficient to justify his arrest and indictment on espionage charges. Upon being notified of the FBI's belief that Abel was residing illegally in the United States—because he failed to notify the Attorney General every January of his address—the Immigration and Naturalization Service ("INS") issued a warrant for his administrative arrest as a preliminary to his deportation. Prior to his arrest, FBI agents unsuccessfully attempted to solicit his co-operation. Pursuant to the warrant, Abel was arrested in his hotel room, and that room, as well as the adjoining bathroom, were searched by INS agents. During the search a forged New York birth certificate bearing a name other than Abel's and a piece of graph paper containing a coded message were seized. After Abel was arrested, he paid his rent for the room and checked-out. He as then taken to the local INS station. Later, during another search of Abel's hotel room, a birth certificate, a certificate for vaccination and a bankbook were seized; all of those documents bore names other than that of Abel. A further search by an FBI agent of the hotel room after it had been vacated by defendant yielded a hollowed-out pencil and a block of wood containing a "cipher pad." After Abel had been indicted for conspiracy to commit espionage, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York denied his motion to suppress the items seized after he was arrested pursuant to the INS administrative warrant. At the trial, the seized articles were introduced in evidence and Abel was convicted. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. Abel was granted a writ of certiorari.


Was the INS warrant valid?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed Abel's convictions on espionage charges. The Court ruled that Abel's rights under U.S. Const. amends. IV and V were not violated when items seized in the search pursuant to the INS administrative warrant were admitted into evidence at trial. The Court held that the INS warrant was valid because it was not used in bad faith for the purpose of allowing the FBI to conduct a search to amass evidence for use in the espionage prosecution, but was based on Abel's illegal status. The INS and the FBI had a right to cooperate in enforcing different areas of law under the common authority of the Attorney General. The INS properly conducted, as an incident to Abel's administrative arrest, a search of his hotel room for weapons or materials proving Abel's deportability, analogous to that permitted as an incident to a lawful criminal arrest. The INS properly searched Abel's suitcase at its detention center since it could have searched the items incident to arrest, and it properly seized an item Abel tried to hide.

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