ANDERSEN V. MARYLAND

This is an audio case brief of Andersen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463 (1976).The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents

FACTS

In early 1972, a Bi-County Fraud Unit began an investigation of real estate settlement activities in the Washington, D. C., area. At the time, Andresen was an attorney who specialized in real estate settlements in Montgomery County. During the Fraud Unit’s investigation, his activities came under scrutiny, particularly in connection with a transaction involving Lot 13T in the Potomac Woods subdivision of Montgomery County. Investigators conducted interviews with the purchaser, the mortgage holder, and other lienholders of Lot 13T.  They also examined county land records. They investigators disclosed that Andersen, acting as settlement attorney, had defrauded Standard-Young Associates, the purchaser of Lot 13T.

Andersen had represented that the property was free of liens and that no title insurance was necessary when in fact he knew that there were two outstanding liens on the property. In addition, investigators learned that the lienholders had forced a halt to the purchaser’s construction on the property, by threatening to foreclose their liens.  When Standard-Young confronted Andersen with this information, he responded by issuing, as an agent of a title insurance company, a title policy guaranteeing clear title to the property. By this action, Andersen also defrauded that insurance company by requiring it to pay the outstanding liens.

The investigators concluded that there was probable cause to believe that Andersen had committed the state crime of false pretenses against Standard-Young. They applied for warrants to search Andersen’s law office, and the separate office of Mount Vernon Development Corporation, of which Andersen was incorporator, sole shareholder, resident agent, and director. The application sought permission to search for specified documents pertaining to the sale and conveyance of Lot 13T. A judge concluded that there was probable cause and issued the warrants.

The searches of the two offices were conducted simultaneously during daylight hours on October 31, 1972. Andersen was present during the search of his law office and was free to move about. Counsel for him was present during the latter half of the search. Between 2% And 3% Of the files in the office were seized. A single investigator, in the presence of a police officer, conducted the search of Mount Vernon Development Corporation. This search took about , four hours,  and resulted in the seize of less than 5% Of the corporation’s files.

Andersen eventually was charged, partly by information and partly by indictment, with the crime of false pretenses, based on his misrepresentation to Standard-Young concerning Lot 13T, and with fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary, based on similar false claims made to three home purchasers. Before trial began, Andersen moved to suppress the seized documents. 

At trial, the State proved its case primarily by public land records and by records provided by the complaining purchasers, lienholders, and the title insurance company. It did introduce into evidence, however, a number of the seized items. Three documents from the “Potomac Woods General” file, seized during the search of petitioner’s corporation, were admitted. These were notes in the handwriting of an employee who used them to prepare abstracts in the course of his duties as a title searcher and law clerk. The notes concerned deeds of trust affecting the Potomac Woods subdivision and related to the transaction involving Lot 13T.

Five items seized from Andersen’s law office were also admitted. One contained information relating to the transactions with one of the defrauded home buyers. The second was a file partially devoted to the Lot 13T transaction. Among the documents were settlement statements, the deed conveying the property to Standard-Young Associates, and the original and a copy of a notice to the buyer about releases of liens. The third item was a file devoted exclusively to Lot 13T. The fourth item consisted of a copy of a deed of trust, dated March 27, 1972, from the seller of certain lots in the Potomac Woods subdivision to a lienholder. The fifth item contained drafts of documents and memoranda written in Andersen’s handwriting.

A jury was found  Andersen guilty on five counts of false pretenses and three counts of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary. He was sentenced to eight concurrent two-year prison terms.

After multiple appeals, Andersen’s case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

ISSUES

We turn next to petitioner’s contention that rights guaranteed him by the Fourth Amendment were violated because the descriptive terms of the search warrants were so broad as to make them impermissible “general” warrants. 

RULE

General warrants  are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. A general, exploratory rummaging in a person’s belongings are unacceptable under the 4th amendment. A warrant must therefore provide a ‘particular description’ of the things to be seized. A seizure of one thing under a warrant describing another is not permitted.

APPLICATION / ANALYSIS

Andersen conceded that the warrants for the most part were models of particularity. However, he argued  that they were rendered fatally “general” by the addition, in each warrant, to the exhaustive list of particularly described documents, of the phrase “together with other fruits, instrumentalities and evidence of crime at this (time) unknown.” He argued the quoted language, must be read in isolation and without reference to the rest of the long sentence at the end of which it appears. When read “properly,” Andersen argued, it permits the search for and seizure of any evidence of any crime.

But the court disagreed with him.

The court explained that the quoted phrase must be read as authorizing only the search for and seizure of evidence relating to “the crime of false pretenses with respect to Lot 13T.” The challenged phrase is not a separate sentence. Instead, it appears in each warrant at the end of a sentence containing a lengthy list of specified and particular items to be seized, all pertaining to Lot 13T. We think it clear from the context that the term “crime” in the warrants refers only to the crime of false pretenses with respect to the sale of Lot 13T. The “other fruits” clause is one of a series that follows the colon after the word “Maryland.” All clauses in the series are limited by what precedes that colon, namely, “items pertaining to . . . lot 13, block T.” The warrants, accordingly, did not authorize the executing officers to conduct a search for evidence of other crimes but only to search for and seize evidence relevant to the crime of false pretenses and Lot 13T.

Andersen also argued that the specific list of the documents to be seized constitutes a “general” warrant. 

But again, the court disagreed.

The court explained that Under investigation was a complex real estate scheme whose existence could be proved only by piecing together many bits of evidence. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the whole “picture” of petitioner’s false-pretense scheme with respect to Lot 13T could be shown only by placing in the proper place the many pieces of evidence that, taken singly, would show comparatively little. The complexity of an illegal scheme may not be used as a shield to avoid detection when the State has demonstrated probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and probable cause to believe that evidence of this crime is in the suspect’s possession. 

The court further added that we recognize that there are grave dangers inherent in executing a warrant authorizing a search and seizure of a person’s papers that are not necessarily present in executing a warrant to search for physical objects whose relevance is more easily ascertainable. In searches for papers, it is certain that some innocuous documents will be examined, at least cursorily, in order to determine whether they are, in fact, among those papers authorized to be seized. Similar dangers, of course, are present in executing a warrant for the “seizure” of telephone conversations. In both kinds of searches, responsible officials, including judicial officials, must take care to assure that they are conducted in a manner that minimizes unwarranted intrusions upon privacy.

CONCLUSION

The court found that the warrants in question were not general warrants. Andersen’s conviction was therefore affirmed.

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