US v. Biswell
Decided on May 15, 1972; 406 US 311


ACLU sides with gun dealer to challenge the constitutionality of a statute that allows
warrantless searches of his locked storeroom


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

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

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the warrantless search of a gun dealer's locked storeroom, authorized by section 923(g) of the Gun Control Act of 1968, violate the Fourth Amendment?
II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

During regular business hours, investigating agents visited respondent Biswell, a pawn shop operator who was federally licensed to deal in sporting weapons. They identified themselves, inspected Biswell's books and requested entry into a locked gun storeroom. Biswell asked whether the agents had a search warrant, and the principle investigator responded that they did not, but that section 923(g) of the Gun Control Act of 1968 authorized such inspections without a search warrant. Biswell was given a copy of the section and he subsequently unlocked the storeroom. There the agents found and seized two sawed-off rifles, items Biswell was not licensed to possess.

Biswell was indicted and convicted for dealing in firearms without having paid the required special occupational tax. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that section 923(g) was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment because it authorized warrantless searches of business premises and that Biswell's ostensible consent to the search was invalid. The appellate court concluded that the sawed-off rifles, having been illegally seized, were inadmissible as evidence. The United States government appealed and the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Warren F. Reynolds argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent. R. Kent Greenawalt argued the cause for the United States.  On the brief were Solicitor General Griswold, Assistant Attorney General Petersen, Jerome M. Feit, Beatrice Rosenberg, and Kirby W. Patterson.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
 (Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
John S. Edmunds and Melvin L. Wulf filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging affirmance. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of petitioner.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"It is... plain that inspections for compliance with the Gun Control Act pose only limited threats to the dealer's justifiable expectations of privacy. When a dealer chooses to engage in this pervasively regulated business and to accept a federal license, he does so with the knowledge that his business records, firearms, and ammunition will be subject to effective inspection. Each licensee is annually furnished with a revised compilation of ordinances that describe his obligations and define the inspector's authority. The dealer is not left to wonder about the purposes of the inspector or the limits of his task.
 
We have little difficulty in concluding that where, as here, regulatory inspections further urgent federal interest, and the possibilities of abuse and the threat to privacy are not of impressive dimensions, the inspection may proceed without a warrant where specifically authorized by statute. The seizure of respondent's sawed-off rifles was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 1 Pro vs. 8 Con

  • Brennan, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T.  Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeals in a 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.