New York v. Burger

482 U. S. 691

June 19, 1987

A New York law allowed policemen to show up unannounced at auto junkyards and search around for stolen property, all without a warrant. Several stolen cars were found in Burger’s junkyard, and he moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the search was unconstitutional. New York characterized the search as administrative rather than criminal, and in line with other routine searches of closely regulated industries. Burger thought the searches were nothing but clever ways to get around the warrant requirement.

The Court ruled 6-3 that New York’s search scheme was Constitutional. Blackmun said in his majority opinion that junkyards were extensively regulated by the states, and that the businesses thus had a low expectation of privacy. Given how epidemic auto theft had become, Blackmun also thought that the law served an important need, and did so in an appropriate fashion. Furthermore, the law was narrow enough as to not constitute a blank check. Finally, he turned to the claim that the law was a criminal search authorization in disguise. Blackmun opined that the act had a legitimate administrative purpose: insuring that auto junkyards were not covert dumping grounds for stolen property. That this administrative purpose overlapped with a penal purpose did not matter.

Brennan, joined by Marshall and O’Connor, dissented. He showed that junkyards were not really that widely regulated. If “closely regulated” industries included junkyards, Brennan thought, then practically no commercial enterprise had much privacy protection at all. He further found the statute’s search authorization almost limitless; police could search a junkyard as thoroughly and as often as they wanted, without any need for justification. Finally, in a section not joined by O’Connor, Brennan showed the essentially criminal nature of the searches. He cited precedents standing for the proposition that administrative searches were not to be used to discover criminal misconduct. In Burger’s own case, the police had gone far beyond what was necessary for the administrative scheme, thus proving Brennan’s point.

Every once in a while, a case comes along where the Brennan and Marshall team totally gets it right. I would have unreservedly joined the entire dissent. The majority opinion practically eviscerates the Fourth Amendment with respect to businesses. Addressing car theft is an important interest, but the provisions of the Constitution must be given more than lipservice.

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