Maryland v. Buie (1990)

Supreme Court of the United States

Maryland v. Jerome Edward Buie

Decided Feb. 28, 1990 – 494 U.S. 325


Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

A “protective sweep” is a quick and limited search of premises, incident to an arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others. It is narrowly confined to a cursory visual inspection of those places in which a person might be hiding. In this case we must decide what level of justification is required by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments before police officers, while effecting the arrest of a suspect in his home pursuant to an arrest warrant, may conduct a warrantless protective sweep of all or part of the premises. The Court of Appeals of Maryland held that a running suit seized in plain view during such a protective sweep should have been suppressed at respondent’s armed robbery trial because the officer who conducted the sweep did not have probable cause to believe that a serious and demonstrable potentiality for danger existed. We conclude that the Fourth Amendment would permit the protective sweep undertaken here if the searching officer “possesse[d] a reasonable belief based on ‘specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant[ed]’ the officer in believing” that the area swept harbored an individual posing a danger to the officer or others. We accordingly vacate the judgment below and remand for application of this standard.


On February 3, 1986, two men committed an armed robbery of a Godfather’s Pizza restaurant in Prince George’s County, Maryland. One of the robbers was wearing a red running suit. That same day, Prince George’s County police obtained arrest warrants for respondent Jerome Edward Buie and his suspected accomplice in the robbery, Lloyd Allen. Buie’s house was placed under police surveillance.

On February 5, the police executed the arrest warrant for Buie. They first had a police department secretary telephone Buie’s house to verify that he was home. The secretary spoke to a female first, then to Buie himself. Six or seven officers proceeded to Buie’s house. Once inside, the officers fanned out through the first and second floors. Corporal James Rozar announced that he would “freeze” the basement so that no one could come up and surprise the officers. With his service revolver drawn, Rozar twice shouted into the basement, ordering anyone down there to come out. When a voice asked who was calling, Rozar announced three times: “this is the police, show me your hands.” Eventually, a pair of hands appeared around the bottom of the stairwell and Buie emerged from the basement. He was arrested, searched, and handcuffed by Rozar. Thereafter, Detective Joseph Frolich entered the basement “in case there was someone else” down there. He noticed a red running suit lying in plain view on a stack of clothing and seized it.

The trial court denied Buie’s motion to suppress the running suit, stating in part: “The man comes out from a basement, the police don’t know how many other people are down there. He is charged with a serious offense.” The State introduced the running suit into evidence at Buie’s trial. A jury convicted Buie of robbery with a deadly weapon and using a handgun in the commission of a felony.



It is not disputed that until the point of Buie’s arrest the police had the right, based on the authority of the arrest warrant, to search anywhere in the house that Buie might have been found, including the basement. “If there is sufficient evidence of a citizen’s participation in a felony to persuade a judicial officer that his arrest is justified, it is constitutionally reasonable to require him to open his doors to the officers of the law.” There is also no dispute that if Detective Frolich’s entry into the basement was lawful, the seizure of the red running suit, which was in plain view and which the officer had probable cause to believe was evidence of a crime, was also lawful under the Fourth Amendment. The issue in this case is what level of justification the Fourth Amendment required before Detective Frolich could legally enter the basement to see if someone else was there.

Petitioner, the State of Maryland, argues that, under a general reasonableness balancing test, police should be permitted to conduct a protective sweep whenever they make an in-home arrest for a violent crime. 


It goes without saying that the Fourth Amendment bars only unreasonable searches and seizures. Our cases show that in determining reasonableness, we have balanced the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests. Under this test, a search of the house or office is generally not reasonable without a warrant issued on probable cause. There are other contexts, however, where the public interest is such that neither a warrant nor probable cause is required. 

Possessing an arrest warrant and probable cause to believe Buie was in his home, the officers were entitled to enter and to search anywhere in the house in which Buie might be found. Once he was found, however, the search for him was over, and there was no longer that particular justification for entering any rooms that had not yet been searched.


We should emphasize that such a protective sweep, aimed at protecting the arresting officers, if justified by the circumstances, is nevertheless not a full search of the premises, but may extend only to a cursory inspection of those spaces where a person may be found. The sweep lasts no longer than is necessary to dispel the reasonable suspicion of danger and in any event no longer than it takes to complete the arrest and depart the premises. 


The type of search we authorize today is far removed from the “top-to-bottom” search involved in Chimel; moreover, it is decidedly not “automati[c],” but may be conducted only when justified by a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the house is harboring a person posing a danger to those on the arrest scene.


We conclude that by requiring a protective sweep to be justified by probable cause to believe that a serious and demonstrable potentiality for danger existed, the Court of Appeals of Maryland applied an unnecessarily strict Fourth Amendment standard. The Fourth Amendment permits a properly limited protective sweep in conjunction with an in-home arrest when the searching officer possesses a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene. …

Justice BRENNAN, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

While the Fourth Amendment protects a person’s privacy interests in a variety of settings, “physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.” The Court discounts the nature of the intrusion because it believes that the scope of the intrusion is limited. The Court explains that a protective sweep’s scope is “narrowly confined to a cursory visual inspection of those places in which a person might be hiding” and confined in duration to a period “no longer than is necessary to dispel the reasonable suspicion of danger and in any event no longer than it takes to complete the arrest and depart the premises.” But these spatial and temporal restrictions are not particularly limiting. A protective sweep would bring within police purview virtually all personal possessions within the house not hidden from view in a small enclosed space. Police officers searching for potential ambushers might enter every room including basements and attics; open up closets, lockers, chests, wardrobes, and cars; and peer under beds and behind furniture. The officers will view letters, documents, and personal effects that are on tables or desks or are visible inside open drawers; books, records, tapes, and pictures on shelves; and clothing, medicines, toiletries and other paraphernalia not carefully stored in dresser drawers or bathroom cupboards. While perhaps not a “full-blown” or “top-to-bottom” search, a protective sweep is much closer to it than to a “limited patdown for weapons” or a “‘frisk’ of an automobile.” 

In light of the special sanctity of a private residence and the highly intrusive nature of a protective sweep, I firmly believe that police officers must have probable cause to fear that their personal safety is threatened by a hidden confederate of an arrestee before they may sweep through the entire home. Given the state-court determination that the officers searching Buie’s home lacked probable cause to perceive such a danger and therefore were not lawfully present in the basement, I would affirm the state court’s decision to suppress the incriminating evidence. I respectfully dissent.

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

When comparing lawful “protective sweeps” with searches incident to lawful arrest, students should note (1) the physical scope of a protective sweep will often extend beyond the area in which a SILA is permissible, (2) because sweeps are permitted only to protect against dangers to those present during the arrest, police may search only areas in which an officer may reasonably suspect a person could be found, and (3) the searches must be “cursory inspections” of those spaces.

An open question related to prospective sweeps concerns whether police may conduct them upon entering a house with consent—or in other contexts unrelated to arrests.52 Federal courts have reached divergent results.

Imagine police are investigating a brutal murder of a gang member and suspect that a rival gang is responsible. They obtain consent to enter the home of a witness in a “high-crime” neighborhood. May they “sweep” the house upon entry? Why or why not?

Consider a slightly modified version of the problem presented above. Here, police are investigating an allegation of insider trading that violates federal securities law. They obtain consent to enter the home of a witness in an exclusive gated community. May they “sweep” the house upon entry? Why or why not?

For courts permitting sweeps absent arrests, see, e.g., United States v. Fadual, 16 F. Supp. 3d 270 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (holding that “under certain circumstances, law enforcement officers may engage in a protective sweep where they gained entry through consent in the first instance” but that the sweep at issue was not lawful); United States v. Miller, 430 F.3d 93, 95 (2d Cir. 2005) (allowing sweeps made by the police pursuant to “lawful process, such as an order permitting or directing the officer to enter for the purpose of protecting a third party”); United States v. Gould, 364 F.3d 578 (5th Cir. 2004) (allowing sweep of mobile home entered by police with consent). For courts holding sweeps unlawful absent an arrest, see, e.g., United States v. Torres-Castro, 470 F.3d 992 (10th Cir. 2006) (“Following Buie, we held that such ‘protective sweeps’ are only permitted incident to an arrest.”); United States v. Waldner, 425 F.3d 514, 517 (8th Cir. 2005) (declining the invitation to “extend Buie further”); United States v. Reid, 226 F.3d 1020, 1027 (9th Cir. 2000) (holding search cannot be justified as protective sweep because when it occurred suspect “was not under arrest”). 


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