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UNITED STATES V. RAMSEY, 431 U. S. 606 (1977)

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606 (1977)

United States v. Ramsey

No. 76-167

Argued March 30, 1977

Decided June 6, 1977

431 U.S. 606


Title 19 U.S.C. § 482 and implementing postal regulations authorize customs officials to inspect incoming international mail when they have a "reasonable cause to suspect" that the mail contains illegally imported merchandise, although the regulations prohibit the reading of correspondence absent a search warrant. Acting pursuant to the statute and regulations, a customs inspector, based on the facts that certain incoming letter-sized airmail envelopes were from Thailand, a known source of narcotics, and were bulky and much heavier than a normal airmail letter, opened the envelopes for inspection at the General Post Office in New York City, considered a "border" for border search purposes, and ultimately the envelopes were found to contain heroin. Respondents were subsequently indicted for and convicted of narcotics offenses, the District Court having denied their motion to suppress the heroin. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement applicable to persons, baggage, and mailed packages did not apply to the opening of international mail, and that the Constitution requires that, before such mail is opened, a showing of probable cause must be made and a warrant obtained.


1. Under the circumstances, the customs inspector had "reasonable cause to suspect" that there was merchandise or contraband in the envelopes, and therefore the search was plainly authorized by the statute. Pp. 431 U. S. 611-616.

2. The Fourth Amendment does not interdict the actions taken by the inspector in opening and searching the envelopes. Pp. 431 U. S. 616-625.

(a) Boarder searches without probable cause and without a warrant are nonetheless "reasonable" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 431 U. S. 616-619.

(b) The inclusion of international mail within the border search exception does not represent any "extension" of that exception. The exception is grounded in the recognized right of the sovereign to control, subject to substantive limitations imposed by the Constitution, who and what may enter the country, and no different constitutional standards should apply simply because the envelopes were mailed, not carried -- the

Page 431 U. S. 607

critical fact being that the envelopes cross the border and enter the country, not that they are brought in by one mode of transportation, rather than another. It is their entry into the country from without it that makes a resulting search "reasonable." Pp. 431 U. S. 619-621.

(c) The border search exception is not based on the doctrine of "exigent circumstances," but is a longstanding, historically recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment's general principle that a warrant be obtained. Pp. 431 U. S. 621-622.

(d) The opening of international mail under the guidelines of the statute only when the customs official has reason to believe the mail contains other than correspondence, while the reading of any correspondence inside the envelopes is forbidden by the regulations, does not impermissibly chill the exercise of free speech under the First Amendment, and any "chill" that might exist under such circumstances is not only "minimal" but is also wholly subjective. Pp. 431 U. S. 623-624.

176 U.S.App.D.C. 67, 538 F.2d 415, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, POWELL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 431 U. S. 625. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 431 U. S. 625

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