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Law School Case Brief

Winston v. Lee - 470 U.S. 753, 105 S. Ct. 1611 (1985)


A crucial factor in analyzing the magnitude of the intrusion is the extent to which the procedure may threaten the safety or health of the individual.


A shopkeeper was wounded by gunshot during an attempted robbery but, also being armed with a gun, apparently wounded his assailant in his left side, and the assailant then ran from the scene. Shortly after the victim was taken to a hospital, police officers found respondent, who was suffering from a gunshot wound to his left chest area, eight blocks away from the shooting. He was also taken to the hospital, where the victim identified him as the assailant. After an investigation, the police charged respondent with, inter alia, attempted robbery and malicious wounding. Thereafter the Commonwealth of Virginia moved in state court for an order directing respondent to undergo surgery to remove a bullet lodged under his left collarbone, asserting that the bullet would provide evidence of respondent's guilt or innocence. On the basis of expert testimony that the surgery would require an incision of only about one-half inch, could be performed under local anesthesia, and would result in "no danger on the basis that there's no general anesthesia employed," the court granted the motion, and the Virginia Supreme Court denied respondent's petition for a writ of prohibition and/or a writ of habeas corpus.

Respondent then brought an action in Federal District Court to enjoin the pending operation on Fourth Amendment grounds, but the court refused to issue a preliminary injunction. Subsequently, X rays taken just before surgery was scheduled showed that the bullet was lodged substantially deeper than had been thought when the state court granted the motion to compel surgery, and the surgeon concluded that a general anesthetic would be desirable. Respondent unsuccessfully sought a rehearing in the state trial court, and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed. However, respondent then returned to the Federal District Court, which, after an evidentiary hearing, enjoined the threatened surgery. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


Would the propose surgery violate respondent's right to be secure in his person and the search would be "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment?




The United States Supreme Court held that the proper safeguards were present and exhausted. The court held that the reasonableness of surgical intrusions beneath the skin depended on a case-by-case approach, in which the individual's interests in privacy and security were weighed against society's interests in conducting the procedure. The court held the operation would substantially intrude on respondent's protected interests. The court affirmed the injunction against petitioners' request.

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