United States v. Watson
423 U.S. 411, 96 S. Ct. 820, 46 L. Ed.2d 598 (1976)

  • An informant named Khoury told the postal inspector that Watson had given him stolen credit cards and would give him more.
    • The informant’s information was probably enough to get an arrest warrant, but the postal inspector chose not to bother.
  • Instead, the postal inspector had Khoury set up a meeting with Watson. At the meeting, Khoury gave a signal that Watson had the cards on him. The postal inspectors swooped in and arrested Watson.
    • Watson did not have any stolen credit cards on him.
  • Watson consented to a search of his car. They found stolen credit cards in his car. He was charged with possession of stolen goods.
  • The Trial Court convicted Watson. He appealed.
    • Watson argued that the arrest was unconstitutional because the postal inspector did not have a warrant to arrest him. If they hadn’t arrested him he wouldn’t have consented to the search of his car, so all the evidence should be thrown out.
      • Watson argued that the postal inspectors could have gotten an arrest warrant, but failed to do so.
    • 18 U.S.C. §3061 (which authorized postal inspectors) gives them the ability to arrest someone without an arrest warrant, as long as they have probable cause.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The prosecutor appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court and upheld the conviction.
    • The US Supreme Court found there was nothing in prior case law to suggest that the 4th Amendment requires a warrant to make an arrest for a felony.
    • Watson unsuccessfully argued that under the ancient common law, the police were only allowed to arrest someone if they had an arrest warrant, or if the person committed a crime in the presence of the police officer, or if there was reasonable grounds to believe that the person had committed a felony.
    • The Court noted that within 48 hours of an arrest, the police have to present the prisoner to a judge for an arraignment to show that there was probable cause to make the arrest, at the time the arrest was made. That functions like a retroactive arrest warrant and helps to deter the police from arresting people wily-nily.
      • See Gerstein v. Pugh (420 U.S. 103 (1975))
  • In a concurrence, it was argued that since the informer gave a signal, the postal inspector had probable cause to make the arrest, and therefore the arrest was legal because it fit into a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. There was no reason to toss out the entire concept that the 4th Amendment requires a warrant to arrest someone.
  • Basically, the police need a warrant to arrest someone because an arrest is a lot like a search and seizure, it is just that the person is being seized, not their stuff. Since the police generally need a warrant under the 4th Amendment to search and seize someone’s stuff, shouldn’t the police also need a warrant to search and seize a person?