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Sealed packages in the mail cannot be opened without a warrant. An officer's authority to possess a package is distinct from his authority to examine its contents. When the contents of the package are books or other materials arguably protected by the First Amendment, and when the basis for the seizure is disapproval of the message contained therein, it is especially important that this requirement be scrupulously observed.
After 12 large cartons that had been shipped by private carrier from Florida to Georgia were mistakenly delivered to "L'Eggs Products, Inc.," rather than to "Leggs, Inc.," the actual addressee, employees of L'Eggs Products opened the cartons, and, upon discovering that the cartons contained individual boxes of film, each of which bore a drawing suggestive of homosexuality and a description of the film indicating that it depicted homosexual activity, contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation which then took custody of the films. The films, which the employees had been unable to view with the naked eye because of the size of the films, subsequently were viewed by FBI agents who ran the films on a projector. Ultimately, individuals who had been indicted on federal charges relating to the interstate shipment of the films, and who had unsuccessfully moved to suppress the films, were convicted on such charges in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding, among other things, that the Fourth Amendment had not been violated in connection with the federal agents' viewing of the films.
By viewing the film without obtaining warrant, did the Government violate the owner’s constitutional right?
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. The Court held that even though the nature of the contents of the films was indicated by descriptive material on their individual containers, the Government's unauthorized screening of the films constituted an unreasonable invasion of their owner's constitutionally protected interest in privacy. It was a search; there was no warrant; the owner had not consented; and there were no exigent circumstances. According to the Court, the fact that FBI agents were lawfully in possession of the boxes of film did not give them authority to search their contents. An officer's authority to possess a package was distinct from his authority to examine its contents, and when the contents of the package were books or other materials arguably protected by the First Amendment, and the basis for the seizure was disapproval of the message contained therein, it was especially important that the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement be scrupulously observed.