Rios v. United States
Decided on June 27, 1969; 364 US 253

Man claims 4th Amendment violation after being searched in a taxi cab and caught with heroin


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (Drugs), 4th Amendment, Search and Seizure

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was the defendant's Fouth Amendment right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures" violated when two Los Angeles city police officers approached and surrounded his taxi cab and then seized a package of narcotics that defendant had dropped to the floor of the cab?

May evidence that is obtained by state police officers in violation of a defendant's Fourth Amendment rights be introduced against the defendant in a federal criminal trial?


A. Background:

At around 10:00 p.m. on Feburary 28, 1957, two plainclothes city police officers, sitting in an unmarked car in a Los Angeles neighborhood that had a reputation for "narcotics activity," observed Petitioner Rios enter a taxi cab. The officers trailed the cab for about two miles through the city. As the cab stopped at a traffic light, the officers approached the cab from both sides. According to the report which the police officers later filed, a door to the cab was opened and Petitioner dropped a bag of what appeared to be narcotics onto the floor of the vehicle, at which time one of the officers grabbed the Petitioner while the second officer drew his revolver. The exact chronology of these events was later disputed by Petitioner and the cab driver.

Petitioner was charged in California state court with a felony possession of narcotics. Before trial, Petitioner filed a motion to prohibit the state prosecutor from introducing the bag of narcotics into evidence on the grounds that his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures had been violated when the police officers surrounded his taxi cab. The state court granted Petitioner's motion and the charge against Petitioner was dismissed.

Thereafter, one of the Los Angeles officers who had arrested the petitioner discussed the case with his superiors and suggested giving the evidence to federal authorities. He then got in touch with federal narcotics agents and told them about the Petitioner's case. This led to Petitioner being charged in federal district court under a federal criminal statute making the possession of narcotics a federal crime.

The District Court denied Petitioner's motion to suppress, finding that federal agents had not participated in the search, and finding also that the California officers had obtained the evidence in a lawful manner.  However, at the time of the opinion, the district judge had not yet listened to the testimony of the driver of the taxi cab. Petitioner appealed that ruling to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The higher court again ruled against Petitioner. He then sought review in the United States Supreme Court and the higher court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Harvey M. Grossman argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief was Clore Warne.
Assistant Attorney General Wilkey argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Rankin, Beatrice Rosenberg and Eugene L. Grimm.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable  Unavailable


Opposing Side
A. L. Wirin filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae, urging reversal.  No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

"Under these principles, the inquiry in the present case will be narrowly oriented. The seizure can survive constitutional inhibition only upon a showing that the surrounding facts brought it within one of the exceptions to the rule that a search must rest upon a search warrant. Here, justification is primarily sought upon the claim that the search was an incident to a lawful arrest. Yet upon no possible view of the circumstances revealed in the testimony of the Los Angeles officers could it be said that there existed probable cause for an arrest at the time the officers decided to alight from their car and approach the taxi in which the petitioner was riding...

In holding that the package of heroin which had been seized by the state officers was admissible as evidence in the federal trial, the District Court placed prime reliance upon the silver platter doctrine, there having been no participation by federal agents in the search and seizure. But the court also expressed the opinion, based upon the transcript of the state court proceedings and additional testimony of the two Los Angeles police officers at the hearing on the motion to suppress, that the officers had obtained the evidence lawfully. The court was of the view that the seizure was permissible as an incident to a legal arrest, or, alternatively, that the petitioner had abandoned the narcotics when he dropped them to the floor of the taxicab. At the time this opinion was expressed, however, the district judge had not yet heard the taxicab driver's version of the circumstances surrounding the arrest and seizure. The driver did not testify until the trial itself. After he had testified, the package of heroin was offered in evidence. The petitioner's counsel objected, and the court overruled the objection without comment... For all that appears, this ruling may then have been based solely upon the silver platter doctrine. Moreover, the Court of Appeals gave no consideration to the question of the legality of the state search and seizure, relying as it did upon the silver platter doctrine and rejecting the petitioner's contention that the state court's determination of illegality precluded the federal trial court from making an independent inquiry into the matter...

With the case in such a posture, we have concluded that the interests of justice will best be served by remanding the case to the District Court. There, free from the entanglement of other issues that have now become irrelevant... the lawfulness of the policemen's conduct can be determined in accord with the basic principles governing the validity of searches and seizures by federal officers under the Fourth Amendment...

The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Warren, E. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion; joined Frankfurter's opinion)
  • Clark, T. Con (Joined Frankfurter's  opinion; joined Harlan's opinion)
  • Whittaker, C. Con (Joined Frankfurter's opinion; joined Harlan's opinion)

    The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court vacated and remanded the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.