Arkansas v. Sanders 1979

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Arkansas v. Sanders 1979

Petitioner: State of Arkansas

Respondent: Lonnie James Sanders

Petitioner's Claim: That the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by searching Sanders's suitcase without a search warrant.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Joseph H. Purvis, Deputy Attorney General of Arkansas

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Jack T. Lassiter

Justices for the Court: Warren E. Burger, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., John Paul Stevens, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William H. Rehnquist

Date of Decision: June 20, 1979

Decision: The Supreme Court said the search violated the Fourth Amendment.

Significance: With Sanders, the Supreme Court said police may not search luggage without a warrant unless there are exigent, or urgent, circumstances.

A person's privacy is protected by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment requires searches and seizures by the government to be reasonable. In most cases, law enforcement officers must get a warrant to search a house or other private place for evidence of a crime. To get a warrant, officers must have probable cause, which means good reason to believe the place to be searched has evidence of a crime.

There are exceptions to the warrant requirement. The automobile exception allows police to stop and search a car without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe the car is holding evidence of a crime. There are two reasons for the automobile exception. First, because a car can be moved, police might lose the evidence if they were forced to get a warrant. Second, Americans have less privacy in their cars than in their homes. In Arkansas v. Sanders, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether police could search a suitcase in the trunk of a car without a warrant.

The Man With the Green Suitcase

David Isom was an officer with the police department in Little Rock, Arkansas. On April 23, 1976, an informant told Isom that at 4:35 in the afternoon, Lonnie James Sanders would arrive at the Little Rock airport carrying a green suitcase with marijuana inside. Isom believed the informant because just three months earlier, the informant gave the police information that led to Sanders's arrest and conviction for possessing marijuana.

Acting on the informant's tip, Isom and two other police officers placed the airport under surveillance. As the informant predicted, Sanders appeared at gate No. 1, deposited some luggage in a taxicab, and then went to the baggage claim area. There Sanders met a man named David Rambo. Rambo waited while Sanders retrieved a green suitcase from the airport baggage service. Sanders gave the suitcase to Rambo and then went to his taxicab, where Rambo joined him a short while later. Rambo put the suitcase into the trunk and rode off in the taxicab with Sanders.

Isom and one of his fellow officers pursued the taxicab. With help from a patrol car, they stopped the taxicab several blocks from the airport. At the request of the police, the taxi driver opened the trunk of the car, where the officers found the green suitcase. Without asking for permission, the police opened the suitcase and found 9.3 pounds of marijuana in ten plastic bags.

On October 14, 1976, Arkansas charged Sanders and Rambo with possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. Before trial, Sanders made a motion to suppress, or get rid of, the marijuana evidence. When the government violates the Fourth Amendment, it is not allowed to use the evidence it finds to convict the defendant. Sanders said the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights by opening the suitcase without a search warrant. Arkansas argued that the search was legal under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

The trial court denied Sanders's motion, the jury convicted him, and the court sentenced him to ten years in prison and fined him $15,000. Sanders appealed to the Supreme Court of Arkansas. That court ruled in his favor, saying the trial court should have suppressed the marijuana evidence because the police violated the Fourth Amendment. Faced with having to dismiss the case against Sanders, Arkansas took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Privacy Prevails

With a 7–2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sanders. Writing for the Court, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., said the automobile exception did not apply to the search of Sanders's suitcase. Once the police had the suitcase, there was no danger that it would be taken away like an automobile.

Powell said people usually keep personal belongings in their luggage. That means they expect the luggage to be private. The Fourth Amendment protects privacy by requiring the police to get a warrant by proving they have probable cause to search a private item. After seizing Sanders's suitcase, Isom and his fellow officer should have asked a judge or magistrate for a warrant before searching it. Because they did not, Arkansas could not use the marijuana evidence to convict Sanders of a crime.

Criminal Justice Fails?

Two justices dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's opinion. Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote a dissenting opinion. Blackmun thought Isom was allowed to search the suitcase under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Why should Isom have stopped the search when he found a piece of luggage that was supposed to contain criminal evidence? Blackmun thought the Court's decision created an unrealistic difference between searching cars and searching things found in cars. He feared this would allow many guilty people to go free.


T he South American country of Colombia is a major battleground in the war on drugs. According to estimates by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 80 percent of the cocaine and heroin in the United States comes from Colombia.

In January 2000, President William J. Clinton announced a plan to make the Colombian government a partner in the war on drugs. Clinton asked Congress to approve a $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia. Most of the aid would equip and fund the Colombian military. Clinton's request included thirty Black Hawk helicopters and fifteen UH-1N Huey helicopters.

Clinton's plan received criticism from members of Congress. Many Republicans think the United States should fund American drug-fighting police instead of the Colombian military. They say the Colombian military uses aid packages to fight guerrillas (independent bands of soldiers) who are trying to overthrow the Colombian government. Amnesty International and many Democrats added concerns that the Colombian military is responsible for many human rights violations, including restricting military service to uneducated people. The Clinton administration, however, believes fighting Colombian guerrillas is a necessary part of winning the war on drugs.

Suggestions for further reading

Deyoung, Karen. "Clinton Plans to Seek $1.3 Billion to Stem Colombian Drug Flow." Washington Post, January 12, 2000.

Deyoung, Karen. "Colombia Anti-Drug Plan Draws Hill Fire." Washington Post, February 16, 2000.

Franklin, Paula A. The Fourth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Persico, Deborah A. Mapp v. Ohio: Evidence and Search Warrants. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Peters, Ralph. "The U.S. Is Setting a Trap for Itself in Colombia." Washington Post, March 5, 2000.

Shattuck, John H.F. Rights of Privacy. Skokie: National Textbook Co., 1977.

Wetterer, Charles M. The Fourth Amendment: Search and Seizure. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

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Arkansas v. Sanders 1979