A Customs inspector initiated a lawful border search and found marijuana concealed inside a table. The inspector informed the DEA of these facts. The next day, the agent put the table in a delivery van and drove it to the defendant’s building. A police inspector met him there. Posing as deliverymen, the two men entered the apartment building and announced they had a package for the defendant.
At the defendant’s request, the officers left the container in the hallway outside the defendant’s apartment. The agent stationed himself to keep the container in sight and observed the defendant pull the container into his apartment. While the inspector left to secure a search warrant for the defendant’s apartment, the agent maintained surveillance. The agent saw the defendant leave his apartment, walk to the end of the corridor, look out the window, and then return to the apartment. The agent remained in the building but did not keep the apartment door under constant surveillance.
Between thirty and forty minutes after the delivery the defendant reemerged from the apartment with the shipping container and was immediately arrested. At the station the officers reopened the container and seized the marijuana found inside the table. The search warrant had not yet been obtained.
Whether the Fourth Amendment requires a search warrant to reopen a container that had previously been lawfully opened?
No. A reopening of a sealed container in which contraband drugs had been discovered in an earlier lawful border search is not a “search” within the Fourth Amendment where the reopening is made after a controlled delivery.
When a common carrier or law enforcement officer discovers contraband in transit, the contraband could simply be destroyed. However, this would eliminate the possibility of prosecuting those responsible. Instead, the government may make a “controlled delivery” of the container to the person to whom it is addressed. As long as the initial discovery of the contraband is lawful, neither the shipper nor the addressee has any remaining expectation of privacy in the contents. Therefore, the government may, at the conclusion of the controlled delivery, seize the container and re-open it without procuring a warrant.
Normally, the government will not let the container out of their sight between the time they discover the contraband and the time it is delivered to the addressee and then seized. However, even if there is a brief lapse in surveillance, this will not reinstitute the addressee’s expectation of privacy. The relatively short break in surveillance made it substantially unlikely that the defendant had removed the table or placed new items inside the container while he was in his apartment. Therefore, the seizure and re-opening of the container was not a Fourth Amendment search as it violated no reasonable expectation of privacy.
463 U.S. 765, 103 S. Ct. 3319 (1983)