United States v. Robinson
414 U.S. 218, 94 S. Ct. 467, 38 L. Ed.2d 427 (1973)

  • Robinson was driving his car when he was spotted by a policeman. The policeman had reason to believe that Robinson was driving with a suspended license.
  • The policeman stopped Robinson and arrested him. He then patted Robinson down and found drugs on him. Robinson was arrested and charged with drug possession.
    • That's known as a search incident to a lawful arrest (SILA).
    • A small amount of heroin was found inside of a crumpled cigarette pack that Robinson had in his pocket.
  • The Trial Court convicted Robinson of drug possession. He appealed.
    • Robinson conceded that the police had probable cause to arrest him for driving without a license. However, he argued that they did not have probable cause to search him for drugs.
    • If the police had gone to a magistrate and said, "I believe Robinson is driving without a license, I'd like a warrant to search him," the magistrate would not have granted a search warrant.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The prosecutor appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that the drugs had been found as the result of a search which violated Robinson's 4th Amendment rights.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court and upheld the conviction.
    • The US Supreme Court noted that it was well settled law that a search incident to a lawful arrest is a traditional exception to the 4th Amendment.
      • The search may be made of the person of the arrestee by virtue of the lawful arrest.
      • The search may be only made of the immediate area within the control of the arrestee.
    • The Court noted that the basis for these searches were to disarm the arrestee and to preserve evidence. Therefore, the search is entirely reasonable, and is not covered by the 4th Amendment.
      • As opposed to being just an exception to the warrant requirement of the 4th Amendment.
    • The Court noted that whenever you take someone into custody they might react violently or attempt to destroy evidence. Therefore it is always reasonable to search them.
      • There doesn't need to be individualized suspicion about the specific circumstances of the arrest, it is a blanket rule.
      • Contrast to Richards v. Wisconsin (520 U.S. 385 (1987)), where the court rejected the idea of blanket rules.
  • In a dissent it was argued that there should be no blanket rule that a search after an arrest is legal, it should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
    • The dissent worried that the police would use minor traffic violations as an excuse to perform searches that they would otherwise not be allowed to perform because they had no probable cause.
    • The dissent noted that if the purpose was to make sure Robinson was unarmed, the police could have done so without looking inside a cigarette pack, which is clearly not a weapon, nor was it evidence of the crime of driving without a license. The dissent felt that in this case, the policeman went beyond what was prudent and trespassed into an unnecessary and therefore unlawful search with no probable cause.
      • In this case there was no reasonable reason to assume that Robinson was armed, and there was no evidence to destroy.