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Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984).

This case answers the following question:

If a private party searches property and finds evidence of a crime then turns it over to the police, must the police still get a search warrant?

The issue in this case is whether the federal agent needed to obtain a warrant before he subjected a suspicious white powdery substance, found in a package opened by employees, to a chemical test. To determine the legality of the search by the agent, it must be tested against the scope of the previous, private search. The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party and conveyed by him to government authorities, even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in a third party will not be betrayed.

An employee at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Federal Express Office found a package that had been damaged and torn by a forklift, so he asked his office manager to look at it. They opened the package to examine the contents in compliance with company policy regarding insurance claims. Inside the package, they found a tube surrounded by crumpled newspaper. The employees cut open the tube and discovered a large zip-lock bag containing three zip-lock bags containing a white powder. They immediately notified the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, and placed the plastic bags back into the tube and the tube back into the box. When the agent arrived, he pulled the tube from the box and pulled out the plastic bags. The agent then used a knife blade to remove a trace of the white powder to perform a field test. The field test identified the substance as cocaine. At trial, Jacobsen moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the warrant was the product of an illegal search and seizure. The motion was denied, and Jacobsen was convicted. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party and conveyed by him to government authorities, even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in a third party will not be betrayed.

The initial invasion of the package was made by the employees, a private action. Due to the this being a private action, the employees did not violate the fourth amendment with the invasion of privacy. Further, by inviting the federal agent to examine the contents of the package, the inspection by the agent did not violate the fourth amendment. The agent only viewed what a private party had freely made available for his inspection. Simply viewing the contents of the package was not a violation of fourth amendment rights.

Similarly, performing a field test on the white powder was also not a violation of the fourth amendment. By performing a field test on the white powder, the federal agent could only learn one additional fact previously unknown to him, whether the substance was cocaine. The Court reasoned that a field test does not compromise any legitimate interest in privacy, mainly because Congress has decided to treat the interest in privately possessing cocaine as illegitimate. Therefore, a test could be conducted to determine whether the substance was cocaine without violating the fourth amendment.

The Supreme Court of the United States held that examining the contents of the package opened by private employees and conducting a field test on the contents to determine if the contents were cocaine did not violate any constitutionally protected privacy interest. The decision made by the Court of Appeals is reversed.

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