Rawlings v. Kentucky (1980)



On appeal Defendant, David Rawlings, argues again three issues: that he had reasonable expectation of privacy of the purse such as to challenge the legality of the searching of it, that his admission of ownership was the fruit of an illegal detention and thus inadmissible, and that the beach of his person was illegal.

On October 18, 1976, Rawlings, while visiting the home of an acquaintance, was illegal detained by police, looking unsuccessfully for another person, when they “smelled marijuana smoke and saw marijuana seeds” and made those present stay put while the officers obtained a warrant to search the house. In the 45 minutes the defendant and company were detained, the atmosphere was relatively congenial, and once the police returned with the warrant for the search of the house they read Miranda rights and improperly used the warrant to force a friend of Rawlings to dump out her purse, where various controlled substances were held. Rawlings admitted that it was his and was searched, revealing a knife and a large amount of cash.

Defendant was convicted in Kentucky for trafficking in and possession of various controlled substances. Rawlings challenged the legitimacy of the evidence obtained from the purse. The Kentucky Trial Court, the court of appeals, and the Kentucky Supreme Court all rejected his assertions, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari and ultimately affirmed.


On the first question the Court agreed with the Kentucky Supreme Court in its use of Rakas v. Illinois, where the Supreme Court abandoned a separate inquiry into a defendant’s “standing” to challenge an alleged illegal search in favor of focusing directly on whether defendant had a “legitimate expectation of privacy” in the area searched Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 142 (1978). In answering whether the illegal detention renders the evidence inadmissible, the Court relies on Brown v. Illinois, in which the Supreme Court rejected a “but for” test for admissibility of confession in favor of a wholistic approach to determining whether a confession is the “product of free” will Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 604 (1975). Brown set up a multi factor test based on the facts with no single fact dispositive, “the temporal proximity of the arrest and confession, the presence of intervening circumstances, and, particularly, the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct are all relevant” Id. at 603-604.


For the first question, looking at the totality of the circumstances the Court held that Rawlings failed to prove this expectation. The purse was not his, and so he did not have a legitimate expectation of freedom from government search; he had not known her long or used her purse prior; and he did not take normal precautions to protect his privacy. The second question was first addressed by the Supreme Court, since the Kentucky courts conveniently failed to ever directly address the question.  Since Rawlings confessed minutes after being read his rights, the congeniality of the scene, and that the misconduct did not arise to the level of “conscious or flagrant misconduct” requiring the evidence to be inadmissible, the Court rejected his assertion. The final question the Court instantly rejects, stating that after the confession by Rawlings that the contents of the purse were his, he was susceptible to a legal search by police.


Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, affirming the lower courts’ rulings and Rawlings’s convictions, with Justice Blackmun writing a concurring opinion disagreeing with the Court’s interpretation of Rakas, but agreeing with the conclusion. Justices White and Stewart concurred in part but wanted to send the case back down to Kentucky to have them actually address the issue of whether the evidence gained was the fruit of an illegal detention and the question of admissibility in relation. Justices Marshall and Brennan dissented, stating that the majority opinion was contrary to the 4th Amendment.

Jack Fruth
New York Law School | + posts

Jack Fruth is a first-year law student, interested in the legacy market, Delta-8 related issues and cannabis law at New York Law School