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Law School Case Brief

New York v. Burger - 482 U.S. 691, 107 S. Ct. 2636 (1987)


Because the owner or operator of commercial premises in a "closely regulated" industry has a reduced expectation of privacy, the warrant and probable-cause requirements, which fulfill the traditional Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness for a government search, have lessened application in this context. Rather, as in other situations of special need, where the privacy interests of the owner are weakened and the government interests in regulating particular businesses are concomitantly heightened, a warrantless inspection of commercial premises may well be reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.


A junkyard owner's business consisted, in part, of dismantling automobiles and selling their parts. Police officers from the Auto Crimes Division of the New York City Police Department, which conducted inspections of vehicle dismantlers, automobile junkyards, and related businesses, entered the junkyard owner's property to conduct an inspection pursuant to a New York statute which authorized warrantless inspections of automobile junkyards. The officers asked to see the junkyard owner's license, which was required by the statute for the operation of an automobile junkyard, and "police book"-- the record of the automobiles and vehicle parts in his possession. The junkyard owner responded that he had neither a license nor a police book. The officers then announced their intention to conduct an inspection, and the junkyard owner did not object. In conducting the inspection, the officers discovered stolen vehicles and parts of vehicles, and the junkyard owner was arrested and charged with possession of stolen property and unregistered operation as a vehicle dismantler. In the Supreme Court of New York, Kings County, the junkyard owner moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the inspection, primarily on the ground that the New York inspection statute was unconstitutional. The New York Supreme Court reasoned that the junkyard business was a "pervasively regulated" industry in which warrantless administrative inspections were appropriate, that the statute was properly limited in time, place, and scope, and that once the officers had reasonable cause to believe that certain vehicles and vehicle parts were stolen, they could arrest the junkyard owner and seize the property without a warrant, and thus denied the motion to suppress the evidence. The State supreme court held that the inspection statute was constitutional. For the same reasons, the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, affirmed. The Court of Appeals of New York reversed and held that the New York inspection statute violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures because it authorized searches undertaken solely to uncover evidence of criminality and not to enforce a comprehensive regulatory scheme.


Did the New York statute violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures?




The Court reversed the lower court's judgment upon a finding that vehicle dismantlers were part of a closely regulated industry that carried a reduced expectation of privacy, thereby lessening the application of Fourth Amendment warrant and probable cause requirements. Hence, the State's authorization of warrantless inspections of junkyards, concededly for the purpose of uncovering criminality, was not unconstitutional.

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