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Walter v. United States


A private carrier mistakenly delivered several packages containing films depicting pornographic images to a third party. The third party opened the packages, finding suggestive drawings and explicit descriptions of the contents. The third party opened one or two of the packages and attempted without success to view portions of the film by holding it up to the light. After the FBI was notified and picked up the packages, agents viewed the films with a projector.


Whether the viewing of the films constituted a government intrusion on a reasonable expectation of privacy?


Yes. Even though the private parties destroyed any reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the depictions and descriptions found on the film boxes, the agents exceeded the scope of this intrusion by viewing the film.


It is well settled that an officer’s authority to possess a package is distinct from his authority to examine its contents. When the contents of the package are books or other materials arguably protected by the First Amendment, and when the basis for the seizure is disapproval of the message contained therein, it is especially important that this requirement be scrupulously observed.

Some circumstances – for example, if the results of the private search are in plain view when materials are turned over to the government (see United States v. Jacobsen) – may justify the government’s re-examination of the materials. However, the government may not exceed the scope of the private search unless it has the right to make an independent search. The nature of the contents of the films was indicated by descriptive material on their individual containers. This did not allow the government’s unauthorized screening of the films absent consent, exigency or a warrant. The screening constituted an unreasonable invasion of their owner’s constitutionally protected interest in privacy. It was a search; there was no warrant; the owner had not consented; and there were no exigent circumstances. Therefore, the intrusion of viewing the films with a projector was unreasonable.


447 U.S. 649, 100 S. Ct. 2395 (1980)

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