Spinelli v. United States
393 U.S. 410, 89 S. Ct. 584, 21 L. Ed.2d 637 (1969)

  • Spinelli entered Missouri from Illinois with the intention of gambling. The police were following him.
  • The police applied for a warrant to search Spinelli. The warrant contained statements that:
    • Spinelli went several homes in St Louis.
    • One of the homes he went to had two separate telephone numbers (a rarity back in the 1960s)
    • Spinelli was known around town as a bookie.
    • A confidential informant told the police that Spinelli was in St. Louis to take bets.
  • The police received the warrant, executed it, and found some incriminating evidence. Spinelli was arrested and charged with gambling-related offenses under Missouri State law.
  • The Trial Court convicted Spinelli of gambling. Spinelli appealed.
    • Spinelli argued that the search warrant was unconstitutional because the police did not have sufficient probable cause to get a warrant.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Spinelli appealed.
    • The Appellate Court looked at the warrant with a “totality of circumstances” approach.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and threw out the conviction.
    • The US Supreme Court looked to Aguilar v. Texas (378 U.S. 108 (1964)), and found that an affidavit to support probable cause to get a warrant can be based on hearsay information from an informant, but that affidavit must also provide:
      • Information on the ‘underlying circumstances’ so that the magistrate can judge the validity of the informant’s information and,
      • Information to support the claim that the informant’s information was credible and reliable.
    • The Court looked at the police affidavit and found:
      • The first two statements were innocent activities that do not show anything to sustain a warrant.
      • The third statement was nothing but a bald and unilluminating assertion.
      • The fourth statement was a necessary element, but not sufficient.
    • The Court found that the informer’s tip did not meet two-pronged test required by Aguilar.
      • The affidavit supplied no information on why the magistrate should believe that the informer was reliable. (He could be actively lying).
        • Aka the veracity prong.
      • The affidavit supplied no information of the underlying circumstances from which the informer concluded that Spinelli was running a bookmaking operation. (He could have gotten the information from a bad source).
        • Aka the basis for knowledge prong.
      • This two-prong approach is known as the Aguilar-Spinelli Doctrine.
  • The basic rule was that if you are going to use an informer, you must provide enough information to show that the informer is reliable and that they actually have access to the information they claim they have access to.
    • Alternately, the police can find independent evidence to corroborate the informer’s statements.
  • The reason this is important is that if the affidavit is missing these things, then the magistrate isn’t the one who is determining probable cause. He is just rubber stamping what the policeman believes is probable cause.
    • The magistrate must be able to make an independent determination based solely on the facts.
  • This case was later overturned by Illinois v. Gates (462 U.S. 231 (1983)).