United States v. Mendenhall

446 US 544 (1980)

(The Airport Consent Case)

 

Context

The Supreme Court ruled in Terry v Ohio (1968) that a stop and frisk of an individual was not by nature a violation of the Fourth Amendment; but rather, the totality of the circumstances would need to be considered to determine whether a specific stop and frisk violated the Fourth Amendment. Eight years later in February 1976, United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents observed Sylvia Mendenhall in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport behaving in a manner common to people transporting drugs. The agents stopped Mendenhall and asked for her identification and plane ticket. After noticing a discrepancy in the name listed on her ticket and her driver’s license, the agents identified themselves as agents of the DEA, and observed Mendenhall become visibly shaken. The agents asked Mendenhall to follow them back to the DEA office at the airport, where they requested permission to search her bag and her person, advising her of her right to refuse. Mendenhall willingly followed the officers and verbally approved their search of her person and belongings. A female agent arrived to search Mendenhall’s person and again advised her of her right to refuse, but Mendenhall did not refuse and began to disrobe, revealing two packets underneath her clothing. One packet contained heroin and Mendenhall was arrested for possession. Mendenhall unsuccessfully moved to suppress the packets as evidence in trial on the grounds that they were obtained in an unlawful search and seizure. The Court of Appeals, however, found that Mendenhall had not properly consented to the search and reversed the decision. The DEA appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, seeking to clarify whether the search violated Mendenhall’s Fourth Amendment rights. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of the United States. The Court could not reach a majority on whether Mendenhall had in fact been “seized”, despite the DEA’s argument that they had seized Mendenhall because of suspicious behavior. The Court also could not reach a majority opinion on whether the decision to seize Mendenhall was reasonably justified or necessary. Considering the question of whether Mendenhall was coerced into the search, the Court stated that she was given many options to refuse the agents but agreed at each turn, and therefore consented. Justice White consented to the plurality, joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens in his dissent that “This conclusion is inconsistent with our recognition that consent cannot be presumed from a showing of acquiescence to authority”. This case established a precedent in which citizens could reasonably be stopped by officers, only to have their rights violated by officers’ abuse of power afterwards. The precedent established in this case would be referenced in future Fourth Amendment cases, including State v Cook (1995) and United States v Drayton (2002).


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Stewart, joined by Burger, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist

Concurrence: Powell, joined by Burger, Blackmun

Dissent: White, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Stevens

 

Facts:

At the hearing in the trial court on the respondent's motion to suppress, it was established how the heroin she was charged with possessing had been obtained from her. The respondent arrived at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a commercial airline flight from Los Angeles early in the morning on February 10, 1976. As she disembarked from the airplane, she was observed by two agents of the DEA, who were present at the airport for the purpose of detecting unlawful traffic in narcotics. After observing the respondent's conduct, which appeared to the agents to be characteristic of persons unlawfully carrying narcotics, the agents approached her as she was walking through the concourse, identified themselves as federal agents, and asked to see her identification and airline ticket. The respondent produced her driver's license, which was in the name of Sylvia Mendenhall, and, in answer to a question of one of the agents, stated that she resided at the address appearing on the license. The airline ticket was issued in the name of "Annette Ford." When asked why the ticket bore a name different from her own, the respondent stated that she "just felt like using that name." In response to a further question, the respondent indicated that she had been in California only two days. Agent Anderson then specifically identified himself as a federal narcotics agent and, according to his testimony, the respondent "became quite shaken, extremely nervous. She had a hard time speaking."

After returning the airline ticket and driver's license to her, Agent Anderson asked the respondent if she would accompany him to the airport DEA office for further questions. She did so, although the record does not indicate a verbal response to the request. The office, which was located up one flight of stairs about 50 feet from where the respondent had first been approached, consisted of a reception area adjoined by three other rooms. At the office the agent asked the respondent if she would allow a search of her person and handbag and told her that she had the right to decline the search if she desired. She responded: "Go ahead." She then handed Agent Anderson her purse, which contained a receipt for an airline ticket that had been issued to "F. Bush"three days earlier for a flight from Pittsburgh through Chicago to Los Angeles. The agent asked whether this was the ticket that she had used for her flight to California, and the respondent stated that it was.

A female police officer then arrived to conduct the search of the respondent's person. She asked the agents if the respondent had consented to be searched. The agents said that she had, and the respondent followed the policewoman into a private room. There the policewoman again asked the respondent if she consented to the search, and the respondent replied that she did. The policewoman explained that the search would require that the respondent remove her clothing. The respondent stated that she had a plane to catch and was assured by the policewoman that if she were carrying no narcotics, there would be no problem. The respondent then began to disrobe without further comment. As the respondent removed her clothing, she took from her undergarments two small packages, one of which appeared to contain heroin, and handed both to the policewoman. The agents then arrested the respondent for possessing heroin.        

United States v. Mendenhall

United States v. Mendenhall

United States v. Mendenhall

Question:

Whether any right of the respondent guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment was violated in the circumstances presented by this case.   

Reasoning:

"The Fourth Amendment provides that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. . .."

The Fourth Amendment's requirement that searches and seizures be founded upon an objective justification, governs all seizures of the person, "including seizures that involve only a brief detention short of traditional arrest. Only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a 'seizure' has occurred."

A person is "seized" only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained. Only when such restraint is imposed is there any foundation whatever for invoking constitutional safeguards. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is not to eliminate all contact between the police and the citizenry, but "to prevent arbitrary and oppressive interference by enforcement officials with the privacy and personal security of individuals." As long as the person to whom questions are put remains free to disregard the questions and walk away, there has been no intrusion upon that person's liberty or privacy as would under the Constitution require some particularized and objective justification.

Examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled.

On the facts of this case, no "seizure" of the respondent occurred. The events took place in the public concourse. The agents wore no uniforms and displayed no weapons. They did not summon the respondent to their presence, but instead approached her and identified themselves as federal agents. They requested, but did not demand to see the respondent's identification and ticket. Such conduct, without more, did not amount to an intrusion upon any constitutionally protected interest. The respondent was not seized simply by reason of the fact that the agents approached her, asked her if she would show them her ticket and identification, and posed to her a few questions. Nor was it enough to establish a seizure that the person asking the questions was a law enforcement official. In short, nothing in the record suggests that the respondent had any objective reason to believe that she was not free to end the conversation in the concourse and proceed on her way, and for that reason we conclude that the agents' initial approach to her was not a seizure.

The question whether the respondent's consent to accompany the agents was in fact voluntary or was the product of duress or coercion, express or implied, is to be determined by the totality of all the circumstances, and is a matter which the Government has the burden of proving. The Government's evidence showed that the respondent was not told that she had to go to the office, but was simply asked if she would accompany the officers. There were neither threats nor any show of force. The respondent had been questioned only briefly, and her ticket and identification were returned to her before she was asked to accompany the officers.

The totality of the evidence in this case was plainly adequate to support the District Court's finding that the respondent voluntarily consented to accompany the officers to the DEA office.

There was more than enough evidence in this case to sustain the view that "consent was freely and voluntarily given." First, we note that the respondent, who was 22 years old and had an 11th-grade education, was plainly capable of a knowing consent. Second, it is especially significant that the respondent was twice expressly told that she was free to decline to consent to the search, and only thereafter explicitly consented to it. Although the Constitution does not require "proof of knowledge of a right to refuse as the sine qua non of an effective consent to a search," such knowledge was highly relevant to the determination that there had been consent. And, perhaps more important for present purposes, the fact that the officers themselves informed the respondent that she was free to withhold her consent substantially lessened the probability that their conduct could reasonably have appeared to her to be coercive.

The respondent had twice unequivocally indicated her consent to the search, and when assured by the police officer that there would be no problem if nothing were turned up by the search, she began to undress without further comment.

Holding:

A person has been "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.

The respondent consented to the search of her person "freely and voluntarily", so her consent to the subsequent search wasn't infected by an unlawful detention."

 

Key Takeaway

A seizure doesn't occur unless the totality of the circumstances would lead a reasonable person to believe he wasn't free to leave. There must be a show of authority, the suspect must believe he or she cannot leave, and the suspect must submit to the officer.    


Court Syllabus:

Respondent, prior to trial in Federal District Court on a charge of possessing heroin with intent to distribute it, moved to suppress the introduction in evidence of the heroin on the ground that it had been acquired through an unconstitutional search and seizure by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. At the hearing on the motion, it was established that when respondent arrived at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a flight from Los Angeles, two DEA agents, observing that her conduct appeared to be characteristic of persons unlawfully carrying narcotics, approached her as she was walking through the concourse, identified themselves as federal agents, and asked to see her identification and airline ticket. After respondent produced her driver's license, which was in her name, and her ticket, which was issued in another name, the agents questioned her briefly as to the discrepancy and as to how long she had been in California. After returning the ticket and driver's license to her, one of the agents asked respondent if she would accompany him to the airport DEA office for further questions, and respondent did so. At the office the agent asked respondent if she would allow a search of her person and handbag and told her that she had the right to decline the search if she desired. She responded: "Go ahead," and handed her purse to the agent. A female police officer, who arrived to conduct the search of respondent's person, also asked respondent if she consented to the search, and respondent replied that she did. When the policewoman explained that respondent would have to remove her clothing, respondent stated that she had a plane to catch and was assured that if she was carrying no narcotics there would be no problem. Respondent began to disrobe without further comment and took from her undergarments two packages, one of which appeared to contain heroin, and handed them to the policewoman. Respondent was then arrested for possessing heroin. The District Court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the agents' conduct in initially approaching the respondent and asking to see her ticket and identification was a permissible investigative stop, based on facts justifying a suspicion of criminal activity, that respondent had accompanied the agents to the DEA office voluntarily, and that respondent voluntarily consented to the search in the DEA office. Respondent was convicted after trial, but the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that respondent had not validly consented to the search.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to parts I, II-B, II-C, and III, concluding:

1. Respondent's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when she went with the agents from the concourse to the DEA office. Whether her consent to accompany the agents was in fact voluntary or was the product of duress or coercion is to be determined by the totality of all the circumstances. Under this test, the evidence -- including evidence that respondent was not told that she had to go to the office, but was simply asked if she would accompany the officers, and that there were neither threats nor any show of force -- was plainly adequate to support the District Court's finding that respondent voluntarily consented to accompany the officers. The facts that the respondent was 22 years old, had not been graduated from high school, and was a Negro accosted by white officers, while not irrelevant, were not decisive.

2. The evidence also clearly supported the District Court's view that respondent's consent to the search of her person at the DEA office was freely and voluntarily given. She was plainly capable of a knowing consent, and she was twice expressly told by the officers that she was free to withhold consent and only thereafter explicitly consented to the search. The trial court was entitled to view her statement, made when she was told that the search would require the removal of her clothing, that "she had a plane to catch," as simply an expression of concern that the search be conducted quickly, not as indicating resistance to the search.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, joined by MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concluded in Part II-A, that no "seizure" of respondent, requiring objective justification, occurred when the agents approached her on the concourse and asked questions of her. A person has been "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave, and as long as the person to whom questions are put remains free to disregard the questions and walk away, there has been no intrusion upon that person's liberty or privacy as would require some particularized and objective justification. Nothing in the record suggests that respondent had any objective reason to believe that she was not free to end the conversation in the concourse and proceed on her way.

MR. JUSTICE POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that the question whether the DEA agents "seized" respondent within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment should not be reached because neither of the courts below considered the question; and that, assuming that the stop did constitute a seizure, the federal agents, in light of all the circumstances, had reasonable suspicion that respondent was engaging in criminal activity and, therefore, did not violate the Fourth Amendment by stopping her for routine questioning.