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The Fourth Amendment protects legitimate expectations of privacy rather than simply places. If the inspection by police does not intrude upon a legitimate expectation of privacy, there is no search subject to the Warrant Clause. The threshold question, then, is whether an individual has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the contents of a previously lawfully searched container. It is obvious that the privacy interest in the contents of a container diminishes with respect to a container that law enforcement authorities have already lawfully opened and found to contain illicit drugs. No protected privacy interest remains in contraband in a container once government officers lawfully have opened that container and identified its contents as illegal. The simple act of resealing the container to enable the police to make a controlled delivery does not operate to revive or restore the lawfully invaded privacy rights.
Defendant was the recipient of a locked container that arrived at the airport from Calcutta. A customs inspector opened the shipping container and found a large wooden table inside. The inspector found marihuana concealed inside the table. The inspector informed the Drug Enforcement Administration, which sent a special agent to the airport. After the agent confirmed the presence of marihuana, the container was resealed. The agent put the container in a delivery van and drove it to defendant's apartment. After arresting defendant, the agent reopened the container and seized the marihuana. Defendant was charged with possession of controlled substances. His motion to suppress was granted and affirmed on appeal. The State appealed.
Did the warrantless reopening of the sealed container after prior legal search intrude on any legitimate expectation of defendant’s privacy?
On further appeal, the Court held that the reopening of the container was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Court further held that there was no legitimate expectation of privacy in the contents of a container previously opened under lawful authority absent a substantial likelihood that the contents had been changed. The Court reasoned that the short break in surveillance of the container by the agent made it unlikely that the contents had changed. Accordingly, the Court reversed the suppression of the marihuana found inside a sealed shipping container.