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Law School Case Brief

Ybarra v. Illinois - 444 U.S. 85, 100 S. Ct. 338 (1979)


Each patron who walks into a place is clothed with constitutional protection against an unreasonable search or an unreasonable seizure. That individualized protection is separate and distinct from the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protection possessed by the proprietor of that place. Although a search warrant, issued upon probable cause, gives the officers authority to search the premises and to search the proprietor of that premises, it gives them no authority whatever to invade the constitutional protections possessed individually by the place's customers.


Equipped with a search warrant authorizing them to search a tavern and the person of its bartender "Greg" for evidence of narcotics possession, police officers entered the tavern, announced their purpose, and advised all those present that they intended to conduct a "cursory search for weapons." One officer proceeded to pat down each of the nine to thirteen tavern patrons, while the others searched the premises. In his initial pat down of a customer, the officer felt "a cigarette pack with objects in it," but did not remove the pack from the customer's pocket. After completing the pat down of the others, he returned to the customer a few minutes later, retrieved the pack, and discovered tinfoil packets containing heroin. After his indictment by an Illinois grand jury for the unlawful possession of a controlled substance, the customer filed a pretrial motion to suppress all the contraband that had been seized from his person. The Illinois trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that the search had been conducted under the authority of an Illinois statute empowering officers, in executing a warrant, to detain and search any person found on the premises if necessary to either protect themselves from attack, or to prevent the disposal or concealment of anything particularly described in the warrant. After the customer was found guilty of possession of heroin, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed his conviction, determining that the state statute was not unconstitutional in its application to the facts of the case. The customer sought review.


Did the patdown search of the tavern customer and the corresponding seizure of the cigarette pack found in his pocket contravene the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments?




Reversing the state court judgment, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the searches and resultant seizure contravened the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments because no probable cause existed at the time the search warrant was issued for the authorities to believe that any person found in the tavern -- other than the bartender "Greg" -- would be violating the law. According to the Court, regardless of the fact that police possessed a warrant based on probable cause to search the tavern, there was no such probable cause to search the patron at the time the warrant was executed, the police having no reason to believe that he had committed, was committing, or was about to commit any state or federal offense. The Court noted that each customer in the tavern was clothed with an individualized protection against an unreasonable search or seizure which was separate and distinct from the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protection possessed by the proprietor of the tavern or by the bartender, the warrant which provided the officers with authority to search the premises giving them no authority to invade the constitutional protection possessed individually by tavern customers. Although the Terry case created an exception to the requirement of probable cause, the Court held that the "narrow scope" of the Terry exception did not permit a frisk for weapons on less than reasonable belief or suspicion directed at the person to be frisked, even though that person happened to be on premises where an authorized narcotics search was taking place.

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