See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541 (1967)

Author: Justice White

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See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541 (1967)

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant seeks reversal of his conviction for refusing to permit a representative of the City of Seattle Fire Department to enter and inspect appellant’s locked commercial warehouse without a warrant and without probable cause to believe that a violation of any municipal ordinance existed therein. The inspection was conducted as part of a routine, periodic city-wide canvass to obtain compliance with Seattle’s Fire Code. City of Seattle Ordinance No. 87870, c. 8.01. After he refused the inspector access, appellant was arrested and charged with violating § 8.01.050 of the Code:

INSPECTION OF BUILDING AND PREMISES. It shall be the duty of the Fire Chief to inspect and he may enter all buildings and premises, except the interiors of dwellings, as often as may be necessary for the purpose of ascertaining and causing to be corrected any conditions liable to cause fire, or any violations of the provisions of this Title, and of any other ordinance concerning fire hazards.

Appellant was convicted and given a suspended fine of $100{1} despite his claim that § 8.01.050, if interpreted to authorize this warrantless inspection of, his warehouse, would violate his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. We noted probable jurisdiction and set this case for argument with Camara v. Municipal Court, ante, p. 523. 385 U.S. 808. We find the principles enunciated in the Camara opinion applicable here, and therefore we reverse

In Camara, we held that the Fourth Amendment bars prosecution of a person who has refused to permit a warrantless code enforcement inspection of his personal residence. The only question which this case presents is whether Camara applies to similar inspections of commercial structures which are not used as private residences. The Supreme Court of Washington, in affirming appellant’s conviction, suggested that this Court "has applied different standards of reasonableness to searches of dwellings than to places of business," citing Davis v. United States, 328 U.S. 582. The Washington court held, and appellee here argues, that § 8.01.050, which excludes "the interiors of dwellings,"{2} establishes a reasonable scheme for the warrantless inspection of commercial premises pursuant to the Seattle Fire Code.

In Go-Bart Importing Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 344; Amos v. United States, 255 U.S. 313, and Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385, this Court refused to uphold otherwise unreasonable criminal investigative searches merely because commercial, rather than residential, premises were the object of the police intrusions. Likewise, we see no justification for so relaxing Fourth Amendment safeguards where the official inspection is intended to aid enforcement of laws prescribing minimum physical standards for commercial premises. As we explained in Camara, a search of private houses is presumptively unreasonable if conducted without a warrant. The businessman, like the occupant of a residence, has a constitutional right to go about his business free from unreasonable official entries upon his private commercial property. The businessman, too, has that right placed in jeopardy if the decision to enter and inspect for violation of regulatory laws can be made and enforced by the inspector in the field without official authority evidenced by a warrant.

As governmental regulation of business enterprise has mushroomed in recent years, the need for effective investigative techniques to achieve the aims of such regulation has been the subject of substantial comment and legislation.{3} Official entry upon commercial property is a technique commonly adopted by administrative agencies at all levels of government to enforce a variety of regulatory laws; thus, entry may permit inspection of the structure in which a business is housed, as in this case, or inspection of business products, or a perusal of financial books and records. This Court has not had occasion to consider the Fourth Amendment’s relation to this broad range of investigations.{4} However, we have dealt with the Fourth Amendment issues raised by another common investigative technique, the administrative subpoena of corporate books and records. We find strong support in these subpoena cases for our conclusion that warrants are a necessary and a tolerable limitation on the right to enter upon and inspect commercial premises.

It is now settled that, when an administrative agency subpoenas corporate books or records, the Fourth Amendment requires that the subpoena be sufficiently limited in scope, relevant in purpose, and specific in directive so that compliance will not be unreasonably burdensome.{5} The agency has the right to conduct all reasonable inspections of such documents which are contemplated by statute, but it must delimit the confines of a search by designating the needed documents in a formal subpoena. In addition, while the demand to inspect may be issued by the agency, in the form of an administrative subpoena, it may not be made and enforced by the inspector in the field, and the subpoenaed party may obtain judicial review of the reasonableness of the demand prior to suffering penalties for refusing to comply.

It is these rather minimal limitations on administrative action which we think are constitutionally required in the case of investigative entry upon commercial establishments. The agency’s particular demand for access will, of course, be measured, in terms of probable cause to issue a warrant, against a flexible standard of reasonableness that takes into account the public need for effective enforcement of the particular regulation involved. But the decision to enter and inspect will not be the product of the unreviewed discretion of the enforcement officer in the field.{6} Given the analogous investigative functions performed by the administrative subpoena and the demand for entry, we find untenable the proposition that the subpoena, which has been termed a "constructive" search, Oklahoma Press Pub. Co. v. Walling, 327 U.S. 186, 202, is subject to Fourth Amendment limitations which do not apply to actual searches and inspections of commercial premises.

We therefore conclude that administrative entry, without consent, upon the portions of commercial premises which are not open to the public may only be compelled through prosecution or physical force within the framework of a warrant procedure.{7} We do not in any way imply that business premises may not reasonably be inspected in many more situations than private homes, nor do we question such accepted regulatory techniques as licensing programs which require inspections prior to operating a business or marketing a product. Any constitutional challenge to such programs can only be resolved, as many have been in the past, on a case-by-case basis under the general Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness. We hold only that the basic component of a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment -- that it not be enforced without a suitable warrant procedure -- is applicable in this context, as in others, to business as well as to residential premises. Therefore, appellant may not be prosecuted for exercising his constitutional right to insist that the fire inspector obtain a warrant authorizing entry upon appellant’s locked warehouse.


1. Conviction and sentence were pursuant to § 8.01.140 of the Fire Code:

PENALTY. Anyone violating or failing to comply with any provision of this Title or lawful order of the Fire Chief pursuant hereto shall upon conviction thereof be punishable by a fine not to exceed Three Hundred Dollars ($300.00), or imprisonment in the City Jail for a period not to exceed ninety (90) days, or by both such fine and imprisonment, and each day of violation shall constitute a separate offense.

2. "Dwelling" is defined in the Code as "a building occupied exclusively for residential purposes and having not more than two (2) dwelling units." Such dwellings are subject to the substantive provisions of the Code, but the Fire Chief’s right to enter such premises is limited to times "when he has reasonable cause to believe a violation of the provisions of this Title exists therein." § 8.01.040. This provision also lacks a warrant procedure.

3. See Antitrust Civil Process Act of 1962, 76 Stat. 548, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1311-1314; H.R.Rep. No. 708, 83d Cong., 1st Sess. (1953) (reporting the "factory inspection" amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 67 Stat. 476, 21 U.S.C. § 374); Davis, The Administrative Power of Investigation, 56 Yale L.J. 1111; Handler, The Constitutionality of Investigations by the Federal Trade Commission, I & II, 28 Col.L.Rev. 708, 905; Schwartz, Crucial Areas in Administrative Law, 34 Geo.Wash.L.Rev. 401 425-430; Note, Constitutional Aspects of Federal Tax Investigations, 57 Col.L.Rev. 676.

4. In United States v. Cardiff, 344 U.S. 174, this Court held that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act did not compel that consent be given to warrantless inspections of establishments covered by the Act. (As a result, the statute was subsequently amended, seen. 3, supra.) See also Federal Trade Comm’n v. American Tobacco Co., 264 U.S. 298.

5. See United States v. Morton Salt Co., 338 U.S. 632; Oklahoma Press Pub. Co. v. Walling, 327 U.S. 186; United States v. Bausch & Lomb Optical Co., 321 U.S. 707; Hale v. Henkel, 201 U.S. 43. See generally 1 Davis, Administrative Law §§ 3.05-3.06 (1958).

6. We do not decide whether warrants to inspect business premises may be issued only after access is refused; since surprise may often be a crucial aspect of routine inspections of business establishments, the reasonableness of warrants issued in advance of inspection will necessarily vary with the nature of the regulation involved, and may differ from standards applicable to private homes.

7. Davis v. United States, 328 U.S. 582, relied upon by the Supreme Court of Washington, held only that government officials could demand access to business premises and, upon obtaining consent to search, could seize gasoline ration coupons issued by the Government and illegally possessed by the petitioner. Davis thus involved the reasonableness of a particular search of business premises, but did not involve a search warrant issue.


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Chicago: White, "White, J., Lead Opinion," See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541 (1967) in 387 U.S. 541 387 U.S. 542–387 U.S. 546. Original Sources, accessed March 27, 2023,

MLA: White. "White, J., Lead Opinion." See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541 (1967), in 387 U.S. 541, pp. 387 U.S. 542–387 U.S. 546. Original Sources. 27 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: White, 'White, J., Lead Opinion' in See v. City of Seattle, 387 U.S. 541 (1967). cited in 1967, 387 U.S. 541, pp.387 U.S. 542–387 U.S. 546. Original Sources, retrieved 27 March 2023, from