Sibron v. New York
Decided on June 10, 1968; 392 US 40

Police seizure of heroin found to violate drug owner's 4th Amendment rights


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (4th Amendment)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was there an unconstitutional seizure of evidence, purportedly justified under New York's "stop-and-frisk" law, when the officer's reason for conducting the search was merely the appellant's seeming acquaintance with several known drug addicts?

A. Background:

Over an eight-hour period, a New York police officer observed appellant Sibron, whom he did not know and had no information about, in conversation with six or eight persons whom the officer knew as narcotics addicts. Later the officer saw Sibron in a restaurant with three more known addicts. On none of these occasions did the officer overhear any conversation or see anything pass between Sibron and the others.  Later the officer ordered Sibron outside the restaurant, where the officer said, "You know what I am after." When Sibron reached into his pocket the officer reached into the same pocket and found some envelopes containing heroin. Sibron was charged with the unlawful possession of heroin.

Appellant argued that the evidence had been illegally seized, and therefore should be suppressed.  The Court of Appeals of New York affirmed appellant’s conviction, holding that the evidence was properly admitted, on the ground that the search that uncovered it was authorized by the New York "stop-and-frisk" statute. New York’s “stop and frisk” law (N.Y. Code Crim. Proc. Section 180-a), provided that a "police officer may stop any person... in a public place whom he reasonably suspects is committing [certain crimes] and may demand… his name, address and an explanation of his actions," and when the officer "suspects that he is in danger…he may search such person for a dangerous weapon."

The appellant brought the case to the Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Kalman Finkel and Gretchen White Oberman argued the cause and filed briefs for appellant.
William I. Siegel argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Aaron E. Koota.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"The detentions and interrogations were illegal seizures of the person. This Court has repeatedly held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits any arrest without 'probable cause.' In the context of the instant cases, it is well to bear in mind that this prohibition is based upon the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on 'seizures' of 'persons'… Thus, it is clear that the well settled requirement of probable cause extends to all seizures of the person and is not limited to 'arrests' in some restricted, formal sense as the courts below have held. Each of the so-called 'stops' in the instant cases unquestionably constituted an unlawful seizure of the person in violation of the Fourth Amendment…

The frisks were illegal searches… A 'frisk' in the absence of probable cause is not a reasonable search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment… A frisk must be a search as that term is used in the Fourth Amendment. And as a search it cannot be a reasonable search unless it is accompanied by probable cause to arrest or search. Since, in the cases at bar, neither probable cause to arrest nor probable cause to search could be shown, except by use of the yield of the frisk itself, the frisks themselves were unreasonable searches and their yield should have been suppressed by command of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Protection of police officers cannot justify the use of the yield of the frisk in evidence against petitioners… (A) Adequate exceptions for police necessity already exist in the Fourth Amendment case law, and the addition of new ones in the 'stop and frisk' sphere is not necessary for the protection of legitimate police interests, and (B) as a practical matter, the use in evidence of the yield of searches made in violation of clear Fourth Amendment principle would provide great incentive for police officers, under the guise of self-protection, to make general searches of the person, thus frustrating the great purposes of the Fourth Amendment which the exclusionary rule was designed to protect...

The requirement of probable cause is a compromise which has been found for accommodating the citizen's basic right to privacy and the need for effective criminal investigation and law enforcement. Requiring more would unduly hamper law enforcement. If probable cause is to continue to be a workable and useful concept to balance the citizen's right of privacy against police necessity, it ought not be relegated to a caricature of a stricture against law enforcement excesses, a status which must surely follow if police officers, with constitutional sanction, are permitted – rather, encouraged – to compel suspects, during a period of non-arrest, to disgorge incriminating information and evidence which will raise their suspicions to probable cause and thereby validate a subsequent arrest…"
"Code of Criminal Procedure, Section 180-a should be declared to be constitutional in purpose and scope… The statute permits two affirmative acts by the police officer. He is given authority in the first instance to stop any person in a public place provided he reasonably suspects that the person is presently committing, has committed or is about to commit a felony or certain specified misdemeanors; and having thus stopped him, to demand his name, address and an explanation of his actions. It is to be noted that the officer has no powers of continued detention and that the person thus stopped is neither required to answer the officer's questions nor to remain in his presence.  Because the statute grants no power to detain, the issue of detention is not present in the case at bar...

The second power granted the officer is that if he reasonably suspects the existence of danger to his own life or limb, he may search the stopped person for a dangerous weapon… The authority of the police to stop defendant and question him in the circumstances shown is perfectly clear. The business of the police is to prevent crime if they can. Prompt inquiry into suspicious or unusual street action is an indispensable police power in the orderly government of large urban communities. It is a prime function of city police to be alert to things going wrong in the streets; if they were to be denied the light of such summary inquiry, a normal power and a necessary duty would be closed off... It is clear, we believe, beyond possibility of obscuring that Section 180-a search is designed solely to protect the officer in the legitimate pursuit of his obligatory duties...

The whole point of Section 180-a – the genesis of its enactment and the content of its purpose – is that our contemporary society is in a state of emergency created by the continuingly [sic] enormous increase in crime. That there is this condition of emergency does not rest in conjecture or argument. Its existence is proved statistically by the facts and figures we have quoted from the studies of the President's Commission and from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Its existence, we submit, creates a new era in the history of this country comparable in fundamental significance to some of the other emerging eras during which this Court has adapted various provisions of the Constitution to contemporary facts without impinging upon or detracting from the true meaning and purpose of the Bill of Rights..."


Opposing Side
Bernard A. Berkman, Melvin L. Wulf, and Alan H. Levine filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae, urging reversal.

Another brief of amicus curiae urging reversal  was filed by Jack Greenberg, James M. Nabrit III, Michael Meltsner, Melvyn Zarr, and Anthony G. Amsterdam for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
Louis J. Lefkowitz, pro se, Samuel A. Hirshowitz, First Assistant Attorney General, and Maria L. Marcus and Brenda Soloff, Assistant Attorneys General, filed a brief for the Attorney General of New York, as amicus curiae, urging affirmance.

Michael Juviler argued the cause for the District Attorney of New York County, as amicus curiae. With him on the brief filed were Frank S. Hogan and H. Richard Uviller.

"Turning to the facts of Sibron's case, it is clear that the heroin was inadmissible in evidence against him...

Although the Court of Appeals of New York wrote no opinion in this case, it seems to have viewed the search here as a self-protective search for weapons and to have affirmed on the basis of 180-a, which authorizes such a search when the officer ‘reasonably suspects that he is in danger of life or limb...'  But the application of this reasoning to the facts of this case proves too much. The police officer is not entitled to seize and search every person whom he sees on the street or of whom he makes inquiries. Before he places a hand on the person of a citizen in search of anything, he must have constitutionally adequate, reasonable grounds for doing so. In the case of the self-protective search for weapons, he must be able to point to particular facts from which he reasonably inferred that the individual was armed and dangerous.  Terry v. Ohio. Patrolman Martin's testimony reveals no such facts. The suspect's mere act of talking with a number of known narcotics addicts over an eight-hour period no more gives rise to reasonable fear of life or limb on the part of the police officer than it justifies an arrest for committing a crime.  Nor did Patrolman Martin urge that when Sibron put his hand in his pocket, he feared that he was going for a weapon and acted in self-defense. His opening statement to Sibron – ‘You know what I am after’ - made it abundantly clear that he sought narcotics, and his testimony at the hearing left no doubt that he thought there were narcotics in Sibron's pocket.

Even assuming arguendo that there were adequate grounds to search Sibron for weapons, the nature and scope of the search conducted by Patrolman Martin were so clearly unrelated to that justification as to render the heroin inadmissible... In this case, with no attempt at an initial limited exploration for arms, Patrolman Martin thrust his hand into Sibron's pocket and took from him envelopes of heroin. His testimony shows that he was looking for narcotics, and he found them. The search was not reasonably limited in scope to the accomplishment of the only goal which might conceivably have justified its inception - the protection of the officer by disarming a potentially dangerous man.  Such a search violates the guarantee of the Fourth Amendment, which protects the sanctity of the person against unreasonable intrusions on the part of all government agents…

The conviction... must be reversed, on the ground that the heroin was unconstitutionally admitted in evidence against the appellant."

Held: the judgment is reversed. This case was decided with Peters v. New York.
Justice Vote: 8 Pro vs. 1 Con
  • Warren, E.  Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P.  Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Fortas, A. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Black, H. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York in an 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.