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Law School Case Brief

Cady v. Dombrowski - 413 U.S. 433, 93 S. Ct. 2523 (1973)


Where the trunk of an automobile, which an officer reasonably believes to contain a gun, is vulnerable to intrusion by vandals, a search thereof is not "unreasonable" within the meaning of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.


An automobile that defendant Chester Dombrowski had rented became disabled when he crashed into a bridge abutment in a Wisconsin rural area. After two officers came to the scene of the accident and were informed that Dombrowski was a Chicago police officer, the officers arranged for the automobile to be towed to a nearby, privately-owned garage. Subsequently, defendant was formally arrested for drunken driving and, because of his injuries sustained in the accident, the officers took him to a hospital. After defendant lapsed into an unexplained coma, a doctor had him hospitalized overnight for observation. One officer remained at the hospital as a guard. The other officer, who had observed that defendant did not have a revolver when he was arrested, and who was under the impression that Chicago police officers were required to carry their service revolvers at all times, drove to the garage in an effort to find the revolver. While searching the interior of the automobile, which had been left outside the garage, the officer observed what appeared to be a few spots of blood on a flashlight on the floor. He then unlocked and searched the trunk and found several items covered with blood. This search occurred after 2 a.m., about 2-1/2 hours after the automobile had been towed from the scene of the accident. After this search of defendant's rented automobile, police officers obtained a warrant and searched defendant's own automobile, in which some additional blood-covered items were found. The return of the search warrant failed to recite that two of these items had been seized. At a trial in a Wisconsin state court, the items found in the two automobiles were introduced by the prosecution as evidence connecting defendant with a murder. Defendant was convicted of murder, the conviction of which the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld. A Federal District Court denied defendant's petition for habeas corpus. Both the state and federal courts rejected Dombrowski's contention that the searches of the automobiles were unconstitutional. However, the District Court's judgment was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which held the searches of the automobiles to be unconstitutional. The State of Wisconsin challenged the court of appeals' reversal of defendant's murder conviction, which was proved by circumstantial evidence that an investigating officer gathered from the trunk of Dombrowski's car without a search warrant. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review.


Was the warrantless search of defendant's automobile constitutional?




The Unietd States Supreme Court held that the search of the trunk of the rented automobile was not unreasonable solely because a warrant had not been obtained. According to the Court, since the trunk of the rented automobile, which the officer reasonably believed to contain a revolver, was vulnerable to intrusion by a vandal who might endanger the general public by removing a revolver from the trunk, the search was not unreasonable under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and that it was not constitutionally significant that the return of the warrant for the search of defendant's own automobile did not list two of the items that were seized. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

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