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Law School Case Brief

Sibron v. New York - 392 U.S. 40, 88 S. Ct. 1889 (1968)


A police officer is not entitled to seize and search every person whom he sees on the street or of whom he makes inquiries. Before he places a hand on the person of a citizen in search of anything, he must have constitutionally adequate, reasonable grounds for doing so. In the case of the self-protective search for weapons, he must be able to point to particular facts from which he reasonably inferred that the individual was armed and dangerous. 


Defendants, convicted of crimes on the basis of evidence seized from their persons by police officers, sought review of a decision of the Court of Appeals of New York, claiming that N.Y. Code Crim. Proc. § 180-a was unconstitutional on its face and as construed and applied, because the searches and seizures that it was held to have authorized violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In Case No. 63, a New York police officer on patrol observed during an eight-hour period appellant Sibron, whom he did not know and had no information about, in conversation with six or eight persons whom the officer knew as narcotics addicts. Later the officer saw Sibron in a restaurant with three more known addicts. Sibron was charged with the unlawful possession of the heroin. At trial in New York sate court, the trial judge rejected Sibron's motion to suppress the heroin as illegally seized, holding that the officer had probable cause to make the arrest and to seize the heroin. Sibron's conviction as affirmed on appeal.

In Case No. 74, an officer, at home in the apartment where he had lived for 12 years, heard a noise at the door. Through the peephole he saw two strangers, appellant Peters and another, tiptoeing furtively about the hallway. He called the police, dressed, and armed himself with his service revolver. He observed the two still engaged in suspicious maneuvers and, believing that they were attempting a burglary, the officer pursued them, catching Peters by the collar in the apartment hallway. The officer patted Peters down for weapons and discovered a hard object that he thought might be a knife, but which turned out to be a container with burglar's tools. Peters was later charged and convicted or possession of the tools. The conviction was affirmed on appeal.


Was there a reasonable search performed on: (a) defendant Sibron? (b) defendant Peters?


(a) No; (b) Yes


The Supreme Court of the United states reversed Sibron's conviction and affirmed Peters' conviction.

(a) As to Sibron, the Court first ruled that the action was not rendered moot by the prosecution's admission before the Court that Sibron's constitutional rights were violated. The Court went on to hold that the search of Sibron could not be justified as incident to a lawful arrest. Further, even assuming arguendo that there were adequate grounds to search Sibon for weapons, the nature and scope of the search conducted were so clearly unrelated to that justification as to render the evidence inadmissible. The police officer's testimony failed to articulate specific facts from which he reasonably inferred that Sibron was armed and dangerous.

(b) As to Peters, the Court held that the search was reasonable and properly incident to a lawful arrest supported by probable cause. The "arrest" of Peters had taken place before the search, and after the arrest the officer had authority to search Peters. The search incident to that arrest, which was limited in scope, was justified by the need to seize weapons as well as the need to prevent destruction of evidence of the crime. 

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