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United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
After a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent learned Karo and other respondents had order 50 gallons of ether from a government informant, who had told the agent that ether was to be used to extract cocaine from clothing imported into the United States. The DEA agents substituted their own can containing a beeper for one of the cans in the shipment and saw Karo pick up the ether from the informant. The ether was moved to other houses before it was moved into a locker, jointly rented by Horton and Harley. The agents obtained the consent from the manager of the facility to install a closed-circuit video camera in a locker that had a view of Horton’s and Harley’s locker. Finally, the ether was transported to a house rented by Horton, Harley, and Steele.
The agents obtained a warrant to search the house based in part on information derived through the use of the beeper. The District Court granted the respondents’ pretrial motion to suppress the seized evidence. The Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, affirmed the judgment, holding that a warrant was required to install the beeper in the can of ether and to monitor it in private dwellings and storage locker, except as to one defendant, Rhodes. The Government then petitioned for certiorari, raising the question whether a warrant was required to authorize either the installation of the beeper or its subsequent monitoring.
U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings Edit
The U.S. Supreme Court held that warrantless monitoring of an electronic tracking device ("beeper") inside a container of chemicals did not violate the Fourth Amendment when it revealed no information that could not have been obtained through visual surveillance. The can into which the beeper was place belonged at the time to the DEA and there was no legitimate expectation of privacy in it.
A "search" occurs "when expectation privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable is infringed." The mere transfer to Karo of a can containing an unmonitored beeper infringed no privacy interest. There was no information that Karo wished to keep privacy, for it conveyed no information at all.
A "seizure" of property occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interest in that property. Although the can may have contained an unknown and unwanted foreign object, it cannot be said that anyone's possessory interest was interfered with in a meaningful way. The existence of a physical trespass is only marginally relevant to the question of whether the Fourth Amendment has been violated, for an actual trespass is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish a constitutional violation.
The Government is not completely free from constraints of the Fourth Amendment to determine by means of electric device, without warrant and without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, whether a particular article, or person for that matter, is in an individual's home at particular time. Where ten cans of ether had been ordered from a government informant, mere installation of electronic beeper by the Drug Enforcement Administration into a can of its own to be included as part of shipment by such government informant did not violate anyone's Fourth Amendment rights, but, rather, any impairment of privacy interests that might have occurred was occasioned by the monitoring of the beeper.
Private residences are places in which the individual normally expects privacy free of governmental intrusion not authorized by a warrant, and that expectation is plainly one that society is prepared to recognize as justifiable. Homeowner takes risk that his guest will cooperate with the Government but not the risk that a trustworthy friend has been bugged by the Government without his knowledge or consent. Searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable absent exigent circumstances. The beeper tells the agent that a particular article is actually located at a particular time in the private residence and is in the possession of the person whose is being watched.
The monitoring of an electronic device is less intrusive than a full-scale search, but it does reveal a critical fact about the interior of the premises that the Government is extremely interested in knowing and that it could not have otherwise obtained without a warrant. The monitoring indicated that the beeper was inside the house — a fact that could not have been visually verified.
Warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable, though the Court has recognized a few limited exceptions to the general rule. The primary reason for the warranty requirement is to interpose a “neutral and detached magistrate” between the citizen and “the office engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.” Requiring a warrant will have the salutary effect of ensuring that use of beepers is not abused, by imposing upon agents the requirement that they demonstrate in advance their justification for the desired search.
The search warrant and affidavit, after striking of facts about monitoring of beeper while it was in residence, contained sufficient information to furnish probable cause for issuance of search warrant. The evidence seized pursuant to the warrant should not have been suppressed with respect to any of the respondents.
Certiorari was granted on the Government's petition, and the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice White, held that: (1) Government is not completely free to determine by means of electric device, without warrant and without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, whether particular article or person is in an individual's home at particular time; (2) Government is not free to do so without warrant even if there is requisite justification in facts for believing that crime is being or will be committed and that monitoring beeper wherever it goes is likely to produce evidence of criminal activity; but (3) where such monitoring revealed nothing about contents of a locker that two respondents had rented, there was no “search” of that locker, which was identified only when agents traversing public parts of facility found that smell of ether was coming from a specific locker; and (4) the search warrant affidavit, after striking of facts about monitoring of the beeper while it was in the residence, contained sufficient untainted information to furnish probable cause for the subsequent issuance of a search warrant.