MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.
Customs officials, acting with "reasonable cause to suspect" a violation of customs laws, opened for inspection incoming international letter-class mail without first obtaining a search warrant. A divided Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
Charles W. Ramsey and James W. Kelly jointly commenced a heroin-by-mail enterprise in the Washington, D. C., area. The process involved their procuring of heroin, which was mailed in letters from Bangkok, Thailand, and sent to various locations in the District of Columbia area for collection. Two of their suppliers, Sylvia Bailey and William Ward, who were located in West Germany, were engaged in international narcotics trafficking during the latter part of 1973 and the early part of 1974. West German agents, pursuant to court-authorized electronic surveillance, intercepted several trans-Atlantic conversations between Bailey and Ramsey during which their narcotics operation was discussed. By late January 1974, Bailey and Ward had gone to Thailand. Thai
Two days after this arrest of Bailey and Ward, Inspector George Kallnischkies, a United States customs officer in New York City, without any knowledge of the foregoing events, inspecting a sack of incoming international mail from Thailand, spotted eight envelopes that were bulky and which he believed might contain merchandise.
He proceeded to open the other seven envelopes which "in a lot of ways were identical"; examination revealed that at least the contents were in fact identical: each contained heroin.
The envelopes were then sent to Washington in a locked pouch where agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, after obtaining a search warrant, opened the envelopes again and removed most of the heroin.
Ramsey and Kelly were indicted, along with Bailey and Ward, in a 17-count indictment.
Congress and the applicable postal regulations authorized the actions undertaken in this case. Title 19 U. S. C. § 482, a recodification of Rev. Stat. § 3061, and derived from § 3 of the Act of July 18, 1866, 14 Stat. 178, explicitly deals with the search of an "envelope":
This provision authorizes customs officials to inspect, under
Since the search in this case was authorized by statute, we are left simply with the question of whether the search, nevertheless violated the Constitution. Cf. United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 877 (1975). Specifically, we need not decide whether Congress conceived the statute as a necessary precondition to the validity of the search or whether it was viewed, instead, as a limitation on otherwise existing authority of the Executive.
That searches made at the border, pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border, should, by now, require no extended demonstration. The Congress which proposed the Bill of Rights, including the Fourth Amendment, to the state legislatures on September 25, 1789, 1 Stat. 97, had, some two months prior to that proposal, enacted the first customs statute, Act of July 31, 1789, c. 5, 1 Stat. 29. Section 24 of this statute granted customs officials "full power and authority" to enter and search "any ship or vessel, in which they shall have reason to suspect any goods, wares or merchandise subject to duty shall be concealed . . . ." This acknowledgment of plenary customs power was differentiated from the more limited power to enter and search "any particular dwelling-house, store, building, or other place . . ." where a warrant upon "cause to suspect" was required.
This interpretation, that border searches were not subject to the warrant provisions of the Fourth Amendment and were "reasonable" within the meaning of that Amendment, has been faithfully adhered to by this Court. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), after noting that "[t]he Fourth Amendment
More recently, we noted this longstanding history in United States v. Thirty-seven Photographs, 402 U.S. 363, 376 (1971):
Border searches, then, from before the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, have been considered to be "reasonable" by the single fact that the person or item in question had entered into our country from outside. There has never been any additional requirement that the reasonableness of a border search depended on the existence of probable cause. This longstanding recognition that searches at our borders without probable cause and without a warrant are nonetheless "reasonable" has a history as old as the Fourth Amendment itself.
Respondents urge upon us, however, the position that mailed letters are somehow different, and, whatever may be the normal rule with respect to border searches, different considerations, requiring the full panoply of Fourth Amendment
The border-search 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. It is clear that there is nothing in the rationale behind the border-search exception which suggests that the mode of entry will be critical. It was conceded at oral argument that customs officials could search, without probable cause and without a warrant, envelopes carried by an entering traveler, whether in his luggage or on his person. Tr. of Oral Arg. 43-44. Surely no different constitutional standard should apply simply because the envelopes were mailed, not carried. The critical fact is that the envelopes cross the border and enter this country, not that they are brought in by one mode of transportation rather than another. It is their entry into this country from without it that makes a resulting search "reasonable."
Almost a century ago this Court rejected such a distinction in construing a protocol to the Treaty of Berne, 19 Stat. 604, which prohibited the importation of letters which might contain dutiable items. Cotzhausen v. Nazro, 107 U.S. 215 (1883). Condemning the unsoundness of any distinction between entry by mail and entry by other means, Mr. Justice Miller, on behalf of a unanimous Court, wrote, id., at 218:
The historically recognized scope of the border-search doctrine, suggests no distinction in constitutional doctrine stemming from the mode of transportation across our borders. The contrary view of the Court of Appeals and respondents stems, we think, from an erroneous reading of Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S., at 153, under which the Court of Appeals reasoned that "the rationale of the border search exception . . . is based upon . . . the difficulty of obtaining a warrant when the subject of the search is mobile, as a car or person . . . ." 176 U. S. App. D. C., at 70, 538 F. 2d, at 418.
The fundamental difficulty with this position is that the "border search" exception is not based on the doctrine of "exigent circumstances" at all. It is a longstanding, historically recognized exception to the Fourth Amendent's general principle that a warrant be obtained, and in this respect is like the similar "search incident to lawful arrest" exception treated in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 224 (1973). We think that the language in Carroll v. United States, supra, makes this point abundantly clear. The Carroll Court
The Court of Appeals also relied upon what it described as this Court's refusal in recent years twice "to take an expansive view of the border search exception or the authority of the Border Patrol. See United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 . . . (1975); Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266 . . . (1973)." 176 U. S. App. D. C., at 72, 538 F. 2d, at 420. But, as the language from each of these opinions suggests, 422 U. S., at 876, 884; 413 U. S., at 272-273, plenary border-search authority was not implicated by our refusal to uphold searches and stops made at places in the interior of the country; the express premise for each holding was that the checkpoint or stop in question was not the border or its "functional equivalent."
In view of the wealth of authority establishing the border search as "reasonable" within the Fourth Amendment even though there be neither probable cause nor a warrant, we reject the distinctions made by the Court of Appeals in its opinion.
The statute in question requires that there be "reasonable cause to believe" the customs laws are being violated prior to the opening of envelopes. Applicable postal regulations flatly prohibit, under all circumstances, the reading of correspondence absent a search warrant, 19 CFR § 145.3 (1976):
Cf. 18 U. S. C. § 1702.
We are unable to agree with the Court of Appeals that the opening of international mail in search of customs violations,
We therefore conclude that the Fourth Amendment does not interdict the actions taken by Inspector Kallnischkies in
MR. JUSTICE POWELL, concurring.
The statute at issue expressly authorizes customs officials to "search any . . . envelope" at the border where there is "reasonable cause to suspect" the importation of contraband. 19 U. S. C. § 482. In view of the necessarily enhanced power of the Federal Government to enforce customs laws at the border, I have no doubt that this statute—requiring as a precondition to the opening of mail "reasonable cause to suspect" a violation of law—adequately protects both First and Fourth Amendment rights.
I therefore join in the judgment of the Court. On the understanding that the precedential effect of today's decision does not go beyond the validity of mail searches at the border pursuant to the statute, I also join the opinion of the Court.
MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL join, dissenting.
The decisive question in this case is whether Congress has granted customs officials the authority to open and inspect personal letters entering the United States from abroad without the knowledge or consent of the sender or the addressee, and without probable cause to believe the mail contains contraband or dutiable merchandise.
In 1971 the Department of the Treasury and the Post Office Department first asserted that Congress had granted such authority in an awkwardly drafted statute enacted in 1866.
First, throughout our history Congress has respected the individual's interest in private communication. The notion that private letters could be opened and inspected without notice to the sender or the addressee is abhorrent to the tradition of privacy and freedom to communicate protected by the Bill of Rights. I cannot believe that any member of the Congress would grant such authority without considering its constitutional implications.
Finally, the asserted justification for the broad power claimed is so weak that it is difficult to believe that Congress would accept it without the most searching analysis. The fear the new practice is intended to overcome is that the addressee of a suspicious item of mail would withhold consent to open foreign mail, thereby necessitating the return of the item to the sender. But the refusal to accept delivery without disclosing the contents of a suspicious letter would itself be a fact which could be considered—along with whatever indicia caused the inspector to regard the item with suspicion in the first place— in a probable-cause determination. There is no reason to believe that the alternatives of probable cause or consent would lead to the extensive return of contraband that
If the Government is allowed to exercise the power it claims, the door will be open to the wholesale, secret examination of all incoming international letter mail. No notice would be necessary either before or after the search. Until Congress has made an unambiguous policy decision that such an unprecedented intrusion upon a vital method of personal communication is in the Nation's interest, this Court should not address the serious constitutional question it decides today. For it is settled that
Cf. Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 347-348 (Brandeis, J., concurring). Accordingly, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Title 39 U. S. C. § 3623 (d), which prohibits the opening of first-class mail of "domestic origin," "except under authority of a search warrant authorized by law . . . ," has, by its own terms, no application to international mail of any class. A proposed amendment, which would have imposed similar statutory requirements on the opening of international mail, was defeated on the floor of the House, 116 Cong. Rec. 20482-20483 (1970).
Our dissenting Brethren find no fewer than five separate reasons for refusing to follow the unambiguous language of the statutory section. The first is the longstanding respect Congress has shown for "the individual's interest in private communication." Post, at 626. But as we examine it, infra, at 616-619, no such support may be garnered from the history of the Fourth Amendment insofar as border searches are concerned. Insofar as they rely on the First Amendment, they ignore the limitations imposed on the search by the statute, infra, at 623-624, as well as by the regulations. Postulating a sensitive concern for First Amendment values as of 1866 is a difficult historical exercise on the basis of available materials from that time. Cf. Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1878) (Fourth Amendment analysis only). Most puzzling of all, however, is the dissent's reliance on the defeated amendment, offered in 1970, when there is no dearth of available materials, which would have imposed a specific warrant requirement on the opening of international letter-class mail. Contrary to the tenor of the dissent, the amendment was defeated, not passed. The one bit of legislative history the dissent quotes, a statement of Congressman Derwinski, reflects only the concern that with the amendment " `the problem of stopping the flow of narcotics and pornography would be greatly compounded.' " Post, at 626 n. 2. We do not see how any solace whatever for the dissenting position may be derived from this sort of legislative history.
The dissent also relies on a brief colloquy on the floor of the Senate during the debate on the 1866 Act. The colloquy is notable both for its brevity and for its ambiguity. It does not distinguish between mailed packages and mailed letters; it refers generally to the " `examination of . . . the United States mails.' " Post, at 627. Yet, by that time, the "mail" encompassed both. See 12 Stat. 704. (To the extent the colloquy was meant to encompass any intrusion on the "mails," the statute has long since been interpreted otherwise. Cotzhausen v. Nazro, 107 U.S. 215, 219 (1883).) Perhaps because of its brevity, the colloquy does not distinguish between domestic and international mail, nor does it distinguish between the searching of envelopes for contraband and the possible reading of enclosed communications. It explicitly manifests a concern with § 2 as well as with § 3 of the bill. But § 2 allowed customs inspectors "to go on board of any vessel . . . and to inspect, search, and examine the same, and any person, trunk, or envelope on board . . . ." Section 3, however, contains a "reasonable cause to suspect" requirement that is not found in § 2, and the colloquy may have simply referred to a concern about the wholesale opening, and reading, of letters. Cf. Cong. Globe 39th Cong., 1st Sess., 3440-3441 (1866). The colloquy by no means indicates to us that Congress was concerned only with detecting smuggling that would be carried in "trunk"-sized packages. It is at best insufficient to overcome the precise and clear statutory language Congress actually enacted.
The dissent additionally relies on the language of the statute in its entirety as demonstrating a concern only with "packages of the kind normally used to import dutiable merchandise." Post, at 628. But this assertion—assuming we as judges know what size packages dutiable merchandise usually comes in—is wholly contrary to the thrust of the purpose, and the language, of the Act. The purpose of the Act is "to Prevent Smuggling." Nowhere does this purpose, however and wherever articulated, reflect a concern with the physical size of the container employed in smuggling, nor do we possess any reliable indication that only large items were smuggled into this country in 1866. As for the word "envelope," it is difficult to see how our dissenting Brethren derive comfort from its use in the statute. The contemporary dictionary source they cite states that the most common use of the word "envelope" is in the sense of " `the cover or wrapper of a document, as of a letter.' " Post, at 630 n. 5. We are quite unable to see how this, the most common usage of the word, reinforces the view that Congress intended only a narrow definition when it used the word without restriction.
The dissent also relies on a "consistent construction" over 105 years by the Executive. Post, at 631. To the extent it relies on a construction that things entering by mail are not covered by the statute, this reliance founders on the opinion of a former Acting Attorney General. See 18 Op. Atty. Gen. 457 (1886). To the extent it is referring only to lettersized mail, the dissent nowhere demonstrates any actual interpretation by anyone that the congressional authority was perceived as an affirmative limitation on the power of the Executive to open letters at the border when there existed "reasonable cause" to suspect a violation of customs laws. The evidence marshaled by our dissenting Brethren on this point could be called "consistent" only by the most generous appraiser of such material.
The dissent's final reliance is on the assertion that asking the addressee for consent to open a letter had not been proved unworkable. Presumably the conclusion to be drawn from this is that the Executive's reason for a change in its policy is weak. But this is beside the point; it reflects not at all on Congress' words or intent in 1866 or at any other time. That the Executive Branch may have relied on a less-than-cogent reason in its 1971 regulatory change has nothing to do with the interpretation of an Act of Congress.
Underlying all of these reasons, apparently, is the fear that "[i]f the Government is allowed to exercise the power it claims, the door will be open to the wholesale, secret examination of all incoming international letter mail." Post, at 632. That specter is simply not presented by this case. As we observe, infra, at 623-624, the opening of mail is limited by a "reasonable cause" requirement, while the reading of letters is totally interdicted by regulation. It is this unwarranted speculation, and not the policy followed by the Executive, that poses the "serious constitutional question" to be avoided.
"[I]t shall be lawful for the collector, or other officer of the customs, after entry made of any goods, wares or merchandise, on suspicion of fraud, to open and examine, in the presence of two or more reputable merchants, any package or packages thereof . . . ."
Section 24 of this customs statute provided, in pertinent part:
"[E]very collector, naval officer and surveyor, or other person specially appointed by either of them for that purpose, shall have full power and authority, to enter any ship or vessel, in which they shall have reason to suspect any goods, wares or merchandise subject to duty shall be concealed; and therein to search for, seize, and secure any such goods, wares or merchandise; and if they shall have cause to suspect a concealment thereof, in any particular dwelling-house, store, building, or other place, they or either of them shall, upon application on oath or affirmation to any justice of the peace, be entitled to a warrant to enter such house, store, or other place (in the day time only) and there to search for such goods, and if any shall be found, to seize and secure the same for trial . . . ."
"As to the ability to open the mail in the presence of inmates, this could in no way constitute censorship, since the mail would not be read. Neither could it chill such communications, since the inmate's presence insures that prison officials will not read the mail. The possibility that contraband will be enclosed in letters, even those from apparent attorneys, surely warrants prison officials' opening the letters." Id., at 577.
We deal here, of course, with borders, not prisons. Yet the power of customs officials to take plenary action to stop the entry of contraband is no less in the border-search area than in prisons. The safeguards in the border-search area, we think, are comparable to those found constitutionally valid in Wolff.
"Going beyond the constitutional debate which we do not have the time for this afternoon, if this amendment were to be adopted, the problem of stopping the flow of narcotics and pornography would be greatly compounded.
"I do not believe we want to legislate on such a major issue with just 10 minutes of debate." Id., at 20483.
Under such circumstances the defeat of this amendment cannot be considered an expression of the will of the House of Representatives on the issue, but it does emphasize the reluctance of Congress to legislate in the area without careful consideration of the constitutional questions. See, e. g., 18 U. S. C. § 2510 (Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968) (warrant required to electronically intercept wire or oral communications); S. Rep. No. 1097, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., 66-76, 88-108, 161-177, 182-183, 187, 214-218, 224-226, 234-239 (1968). I do not, of course, imply that this incident is, in itself, sufficient to demonstrate congressional sensitivity to the individual interest in private communication. See ante, at 612 n. 8. I cannot believe, however, that the Court seriously questions the validity of my assumption that Congress (in 1866 as well as today) was indeed concerned about such matters.
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That, for the purposes of this act, the term `vessel,' whenever hereinafter used, shall be held to include every description of water-craft, raft, vehicle, and contrivance used or capable of being used as a means or auxiliary of transportation on or by water; and the term `vehicle,' whenever hereinafter used, shall be held to include every description of carriage, wagon, engine, car, sleigh, sled, sledge, hurdle, cart, and other artificial contrivance, used or capable of being used as a means or auxiliary of transportation on land.
"SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for any officer of the customs, including inspectors and occasional inspectors, or of a revenue cutter, or authorized agent of the Treasury Department, or other person specially appointed for the purpose in writing by a collector, naval officer, or surveyor of the customs, to go on board of any vessel, as well without as within his district, and to inspect, search, and examine the same, and any person, trunk, or envelope on board, and to this end, to hail and stop such vessel if under way, and to use all necessary force to compel compliance; and if it shall appear that any breach or violation of the laws of the United States has been committed, whereby or in consequence of which, such vessel, or the goods, wares, and merchandise, or any part thereof, on board of or imported by such vessel, is or are liable to forfeiture, to make seizure of the same, or either or any part thereof, and to arrest, or in case of escape, or any attempt to escape, to pursue and arrest any person engaged in such breach or violation: Provided, That the original appointment in writing of any person specially appointed as aforesaid shall be filed in the custom-house where such appointment is made.
"SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That any of the officers or persons authorized by the second section of this act to board or search vessels may stop, search, and examine, as well without as within their respective districts, any vehicle, beast, or person on which or whom he or they shall suspect there are goods, wares, or merchandise which are subject to duty or shall have been introduced into the United States in any manner contrary to law, whether by the person in possession or charge, or by, in, or upon such vehicle or beast, or otherwise, and to search any trunk or envelope, wherever found, in which he may have a reasonable cause to suspect there are goods which were imported contrary to law; and if any such officer or other person so authorized as aforesaid shall find any goods, wares, or merchandise, on or about any such vehicle, beast, or person, or in any such trunk or envelope, which he shall have reasonable cause to believe are subject to duty, or to have been unlawfully introduced into the United States, whether by the person in possession or charge, or by, in, or upon such vehicle, beast, or otherwise, he shall seize and secure the same for trial; and every such vehicle and beast, or either, together with teams or other motive-power used in conveying, drawing, or propelling such vehicle, goods, wares, or merchandise, and all other appurtenances, including trunks, envelopes, covers, and all means of concealment, and all the equipage, trappings, and other appurtenances of such beast, team, or vehicle shall be subject to seizure and forfeiture; and if any person who may be driving or conducting, or in charge of any such carriage or vehicle or beast, or any person travelling, shall wilfully refuse to stop and allow search and examination to be made as herein provided, when required so to do by any authorized person, he or she shall, on conviction, be fined in any sum, in the discretion of the court convicting him or her, not exceeding one thousand dollars, nor less than fifty dollars; and the Secretary of the Treasury may from time to time prescribe regulations for the search of persons and baggage, and for the employment of female inspectors for the examination and search of persons of their own sex; and all persons coming into the United States from foreign countries shall be liable to detention and search by authorized officers or agents of the government, under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury shall from time to time prescribe: Provided, That no railway car or engine or other vehicle, or team used by any person or corporation, as common carriers in the transaction of their business as such common carriers shall be subject to forfeiture by force of the provisions of this act unless it shall appear that the owners, superintendent, or agent of the owner in charge thereof at the time of such unlawful importation or transportation thereon or thereby, was a consenting party, or privy to such illegal importation or transportation." 14 Stat. 178-179.
"That which envelops, wraps up, encases, or surrounds; a wrapper; a cover; especially, the cover or wrapper of a document, as of a letter." N. Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (Goodrich & Porter eds. 1869).
These are the primary definitions given for "envelope."
"It has been found very difficult on our frontier during the last two years to prevent the system of smuggling which has been going on and increasing day by day. The custom-houses are defrauded and the Government is cheated." Remarks of Congressman Eliot, Cong. Globe, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., 3419 (1866).
See also remarks of Senator Morrill, id., at 2563; of Senator Williams, id., at 2567.