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Winston v. Lee

Citation. Winston v. Lee, 470 U.S. 753, 105 S. Ct. 1611, 84 L. Ed. 2d 662, 53 U.S.L.W. 4367 (U.S. Mar. 20, 1985)
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Brief Fact Summary.

A robbery suspect armed with a gun was shot by a storeowner when he attempted to rob his store. The bullet was lodged in the suspect’s chest, and the Commonwealth wanted a doctor to surgically remove the bullet.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

“[T]he Commonwealth has failed to demonstrate that it would be “reasonable” under the terms of the Fourth Amendment to search for evidence of this crime by means of the contemplated surgery.”


The Respondent, Lee (the “Respondent”), attempted to rob a store while armed with a gun. The storeowner, who was locking up at the time, was also armed when he saw the Respondent coming at him with a gun. The store owner fired hitting the Respondent and the Respondent also hit the store owner. The store owner identified the Respondent as the man who shot him while at the hospital.
The Commonwealth moved in state court for an order that the Respondent must undergo surgery to remove the object under his left collarbone thought to be a bullet. Various hearings were conducted on this issue. The hearings involved expert testimony and whether the surgery would be difficult and/or risky. The state trial court granted the motion to compel surgery. The Respondent petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition and/or writ of habeus corpus. The petition was denied. The Respondent then brought an action in federal district court. The federal court refused to issue a preliminary injunction.
Just days before the surgery was scheduled, further X-rays were taken of the Respondent’s chest. They revealed that the bullet was lodged deeper in the Respondent’s chest than thought when the state court initially granted the motion.
The Respondent thereafter moved the state court for a rehearing on the new evidence. The state trial court denied the rehearing and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed.
The Respondent then went before the federal court again and the District Court enjoined the surgery and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


“[W]hether a State may consistently with the Fourth Amendment compel a suspect to undergo surgery of this kind in a search for evidence of a crime[?]”


“A compelled surgical intrusion into an individual’s body for evidence [ ] implicates expectations of privacy and security of such magnitude that the intrusion may be ‘unreasonable’ even if likely to produce evidence of a crime.”
“The reasonableness of surgical intrusions beneath the skin depends on a case-by-case approach, in which the individual’s interests in privacy and security are weighed against society’s interests in conducting the procedure. In a given case, the question whether the community’s need for evidence outweighs the substantial privacy interests at stake is a delicate one admitting of few categorical answers. [The majority] believe[d] that [Schmerber v California], however, provides the appropriate framework of analysis for such cases.”
“[Schmerber] recognized that the ordinary requirements of the Fourth Amendment would be the threshold requirements for conducting this kind of surgical search and seizure. [In that case, the Court] noted the importance of probable cause. And [ ] pointed out: ‘[s]earch warrants are ordinarily required for searches of dwellings, and, absent an emergency, no less could be required where intrusions into the human body are concerned. . . . The importance of informed, detached and deliberate determinations of the issue whether or not to invade another’s body in search of evidence of guilt is indisputable and great.’ Beyond these standards, [Schmerber’s] inquiry considered a number of other factors in determining the ‘reasonableness’ of the blood test. A crucial factor in analyzing the magnitude of the intrusion in [Schmerber] is the extent to which the procedure may threaten the safety or health of the individual. ‘[F]or most people [a blood test] involves virtually no risk, trauma, or
pain.’ Moreover, all reasonable medical precautions were taken and no unusual or untested procedures were employed in [Schmerber]; the procedure was performed ‘by a physician in a hospital environment according to accepted medical practices.’ Notwithstanding the existence of probable cause, a search for evidence of a crime may be unjustifiable if it endangers the life or health of the suspect.”
“Another factor is the extent of intrusion upon the individual’s dignitary interests in personal privacy and bodily integrity.” “In noting that a blood test was ‘a commonplace in these days of periodic physical examinations,’ [Schmerber] recognized society’s judgment that blood tests do not constitute an unduly extensive imposition on an individual’s personal privacy and bodily integrity.”
Moreover, “[w]eighed against these individual interests is the community’s interest in fairly and accurately determining guilt or innocence. This interest is of course of great importance.”
“Applying the [Schmerber] balancing test in this case, [the Court] believe[d] that the Court of Appeals reached the correct result. The Commonwealth plainly had probable cause to conduct the search.” The court’s inquiry here only focuses on “the extent of the intrusion on respondent’s privacy interests and on the State’s need for the evidence.”
“[T]he threats to the health or safety of respondent posed by the surgery are the subject of sharp dispute between the parties.” The majority observed, “[t]his kind of surgery involves a virtually total divestment of respondent’s ordinary control over surgical probing beneath his skin.” The other portion of the balance “concerns the Commonwealth’s need to intrude into respondent’s body to retrieve the bullet.” “The Commonwealth claims to need the bullet to demonstrate that it was fired from Watkinson’s gun, which in turn would show that respondent was the robber who confronted Watkinson. However, although [the majority] recognize[d] the difficulty of making determinations in advance as to the strength of the case against respondent, petitioners’ assertions of a compelling need for the bullet are hardly persuasive. The very circumstances relied on in this case to demonstrate probable cause to believe that evidence will be found tend to vitiate the Commonwealth’s need to compel re
spondent to undergo surgery.”
“The Commonwealth has available substantial additional evidence that respondent was the individual who accosted Watkinson on the night of the robbery. No party in this case suggests that Watkinson’s entirely spontaneous identification of respondent at the hospital would be inadmissible. In addition, petitioners can no doubt prove that Watkinson was found a few blocks from Watkinson’s store shortly after the incident took place. And petitioners can certainly show that the location of the bullet (under respondent’s left collarbone) seems to correlate with Watkinson’s report that the robber ‘jerked’ to the left. The fact that the Commonwealth has available such substantial evidence of the origin of the bullet restricts the need for the Commonwealth to compel respondent to undergo the contemplated surgery.”
“The operation sought will intrude substantially on respondent’s protected interests. The medical risks of the operation, although apparently not extremely severe, are a subject of considerable dispute; the very uncertainty militates against finding the operation to be ‘reasonable.’ In addition, the intrusion on respondent’s privacy interests entailed by the operation can only be characterized as severe. On the other hand, although the bullet may turn out to be useful to the Commonwealth in prosecuting respondent, the Commonwealth has failed to demonstrate a compelling need for it.”


This case should be compared and contrasted with [Schmerber v California].

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