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Law School Case Brief

Spinelli v. United States - 393 U.S. 410, 89 S. Ct. 584 (1969)


While recognizing that the constitutional requirement of probable cause to justify the issuance of a search warrant can be satisfied by hearsay information, the Supreme Court of the United States sets forth a two-prong test to determine the issuance of the warrant: first, the application for a search warrant must set forth the "underlying circumstances" necessary to enable the magistrate independently to judge of the validity of the informant's information. Second, the affiant-officers must attempt to support their claim that their informant is "credible" or his information "reliable." 


Defendant William Spinelli was convicted of traveling across the state line from Illinois to Missouri with the intention of conducting gambling activities proscribed by Missouri law. At trial in federal district court, he court refused to suppress evidence obtained through a search of an apartment. The warrant for the search had been granted on the basis of an Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") agent's affidavit alleging that: (1) Spinelli had traveled to and from the apartment building, had parked his car there, and had entered one of the apartments; (2) the apartment contained two telephones, having different numbers, which were listed in the name of a person other than Spinelli; (3) Spinelli was "known" to the affiant and to other law enforcement officers as a bookmaker and gambler; and (4) a "reliable informant" had informed the FBI that Spinelli was operating a handbook and accepting wagers and was disseminating wagering information by means of the two telephones. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit sustained the search warrant and affirmed Spinelli's conviction. Spinelli was granted a writ of certiorari and argued that the warrant that authorized the FBI search, which uncovered the evidence necessary for his conviction, was unconstitutional. 


Was the search warrant valid?




On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States found that the application for the warrant was inadequate because it failed to set forth the underlying circumstances necessary to enable the magistrate to independently judge the validity of the informant's information. Also, the affiant-officers failed to support their claim that their informant was "credible" or his information "reliable." The bald assertion that Spinelli was "known" as a gambler was entitled to no weight in appraising the magistrate's decision, and the Court rejected as imprecise the "totality of circumstances" approach embraced by the court of appeals. Thus, the affidavit fell short of providing probable cause as necessary to support the issuance of the search warrant. Consequently, the Court reversed the judgment from the court of appeals and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings.


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