Supreme Court Cases 2001-2002 Term. (Legal Digest)

The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Cases 2001-2002 Term. (Legal Digest)


In its most recent term, the Supreme Court of the United States decided several cases of significance to law enforcement. The cases included several decisions regarding Fourth Amendment issues; one concerning Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment; and several important decisions regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act. This article includes a synopsis of these cases. Local and state agencies must ensure that their own state laws and constitutions do not provide greater protections than the U.S. constitutional and statutory standards discussed in this article.

SEARCH AND SEIZURES ISSUES

United States v. Arvizu 534 U.S. 266 (2002)

In United States v. Arvizu, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to "describe and delimit" factors that can be used to determine "reasonable suspicion." The Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier decisions requiring a determination of "reasonable suspicion" be based on a totality of circumstances.

Arvizu was observed by a border patrol agent traveling in a remote area of Arizona on an unpaved road frequently used by smugglers. He was traveling in a minivan with a woman and three children. The position of the children in the back seat suggested to the agent that their legs were resting on some cargo on the floor. When Arvizu observed the agent, he immediately slowed the vehicle and avoided eye contact. When the agent began following his vehicle, the children in the back seat began waving in an "abnormal pattern" as if they were following instructions.

A registration check indicated that Arvizu's vehicle was registered to an address in an area that was notorious for alien and drug smuggling. The border patrol agent decided to stop the vehicle after noting that the route taken by Arvizu was designed to avoid area checkpoints and that he was traveling at a time when border patrol agents were changing shifts. Following the stop, Arvizu consented to a search of his vehicle that resulted in the seizure of more that 128 pounds of marijuana.

Arvizu was charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. He moved to suppress the marijuana on the grounds that there was no reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle as required by the Fourth Amendment. After a hearing on the matter, the district court concluded that the agent's observations and inferences drawn from those observations did amount to reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and denied Arvizu' s motion. On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reviewed each factor used to justify the stop in isolation from the others and concluded that a majority of them were susceptible to innocent explanation and, therefore, carried "little or no weight in the reasonable-suspicion calculus." Moreover, the court of appeals concluded that the few remaining factors were not sufficient to justify the stop.

On review, the Supreme Court repudiated the approach taken by the court of appeals and reaffirmed earlier case law requiring courts to use a "totality of circumstances" approach when determining the existence of "reasonable suspicion." Even though when viewed alone some factors may lend themselves to an innocent explanation, they still may be considered along with other more probative factors when reaching a determination of "reasonable suspicion." Applying the "totality of circumstances approach to the facts presented in Arvizu, the Court concluded that the stop was lawful.

United States v. Drayton 122 S. Ct. 2105 (2002)

Passengers on a Greyhound bus disembarked at a scheduled stop in Tallahassee, Florida, while the bus was refueled and cleaned. Shortly after the passengers reboarded the bus, three plainclothes police officers boarded as part of a drug and weapons interdiction program. One officer knelt on the driver's seat facing the passengers, a second stood at the back of the bus, while the third walked down the aisle speaking with individual passengers, asking about their travel plans and trying to match them with luggage in the overhead bins. …

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