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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Jacobsen - 338 U.S. 160, 69 S. Ct. 1302 (1949)


The text of the Fourth Amendment protects two types of expectations, one involving "searches," the other "seizures." A "search" occurs when an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable is infringed. A "seizure" of property occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property. This protection proscribes only governmental action; it is wholly inapplicable to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the government or with the participation or knowledge of any governmental official.


Defendants were arrested after a federal agent examined and tested their damaged package on a private freight carrier. They were indicted for the crime of possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute. Defendants moved to suppress the evidence on grounds that it was the product of an illegal search and seizure. The motion was denied. They were convicted but the ruling was reversed on appeal.


Does the warrantless search of the Defendants’ package constitute intrusion of their privacy and violative of the Fourth Amendment?




Where a private freight carrier informed the police that a package contained cocaine, the warrantless search of the package did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the carrier had already opened the package. It was essentially inconceivable that a legal substance would be packaged in this manner for transport by a common carrier.  Thus, viewing the powder as they did at the offices of Federal Express, the DEA agent could identify it with "virtual certainty.” Under these circumstances, Defendants had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the identity of the powder, and the use of the chemical field test did not constitute a "search" that would violate the Fourth Amendment.

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