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Law School Case Brief

Brinegar v. United States - 338 U.S. 160, 69 S. Ct. 1302 (1949)


Probable cause exists where facts and circumstances within officers' knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed.


Federal officers, patrolling a highway leading from known sources of liquor supply to a probable illegal market, observed a car driven defendant Brinegar; one of the officers had arrested Brinegar about five months earlier for illegally transporting liquor. In addition, that officer had seen Brinegar loading liquor into a car on at least two occasions during the preceding six months, and he knew that Brinegar had a reputation for hauling liquor. The officers pursued the car for about a mile at top speed, and then forced it off the road. Upon questioning by officers, Brinegar admitted that he was transporting some liquor in his car. Twelve cases of liquor were seized and used as evidence at trial in federal district court after the court denied Brinegar's motion to suppress the liquor. Brinegar was convicted of violating the Federal Liquor Enforcement Act. Brinegar appealed, challenging the constitutionality of the search of his car. Brinegar also asserted that it was improper for the trial to allow the officer to testify, at the probable cause hearing, about Brinegar's prior arrests and pending trial in another court, while excluding that evidence at trial. The court of appeals affirmed the conviction. Brinegar was granted a writ of certiorari on the issue of whether the search and seizure violated Brinegar's Fourth Amendment rights.


Was Brinegar's conviction proper?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the appellate court's decision. The Court first ruled that the facts taking place before Brinegar made the incriminating statements about transporting "not too much" or "not so much" liquor in response to questioning by the officers were sufficient to show probable cause for the search, and the liquor seized thus was admissible at trial. In addition, the Court ruled that the officer's knowledge that Brinegar was engaging in illicit liquor-running was not based wholly or largely on surmise or hearsay; the facts derived from his personal observation were sufficient in themselves, without the hearsay concerning Brinegar's general reputation, to sustain the officer's suspicion that Brinegar was committing a crime. The Court also ruled that the district court properly admitted the officer's testimony regarding prior similar offenses at Brinegar's probable cause hearing even if it was denied at his trial for importing intoxicating liquor, because the law required two different standards. The district court's rulings, one admitting, the other excluding the identical testimony, were neither inconsistent nor improper. Rather, they illustrated the difference in standards and latitude allowed in passing upon the distinct issues of probable cause and guilt.

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