Facts of the case
In Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Department officers regularly boarded buses during stops to ask passenger for permission to search their luggage. Terrance Bostick, a passenger, was questioned by two officers who sought permission to search his belongings and advised him of his right to refuse. After obtaining Bostick’s permission, the officers searched his bags, found cocaine, and arrested him on drug trafficking charges. Bostick filed a motion to suppress the evidence on the ground that it was illegally obtained, but the trial court denied the motion. Following an affirmance and certification from the Florida Court of Appeals, the State Supreme Court held that the bus searches were per se unconstitutional because police did not afford passengers the opportunity to leave the busin order to avoid questioning. Florida appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Why is the case important?
Police officers, without an articulable suspicion, approached an individual on a bus and asked him questions and to search his luggage.
Can officers approach individuals at random on buses to ask them questions and to request consent to search their luggage so long as a reasonable person would understand that he or she could refuse to cooperate?
Yes. The majority first observed that a seizure does not occur “simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions.” Especially when “a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police and go about his business, the encounter is consensual, and no reasonable suspicion is required.”
The court observed that it has “stated that even when officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, they may generally ask questions of that individual, ask to examine the individual’s identification and request consent to search his or her luggage- as long as the police do not convey a message that compliance with their requests is required.”
“The Fourth Amendment proscribes unreasonable searches and seizures it does not proscribe voluntary cooperation. The cramped confines of a bus are one relevant factor that should be considered in evaluating whether a passenger’s consent is voluntary. We cannot agree, however, with the Florida Supreme Court that this single factor will be dispositive in every case.”
Further, “[w]e adhere to the rule that, in order to determine whether a particular encounter constitutes a seizure, a court must consider all the circumstances surrounding the encounter to determine whether the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that the person was not free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter. That rule applies to encounters that take place on a city street or in an airport lobby, and it applies equally to encounters on a bus. The Florida Supreme Court erred in adopting a per se rule.”
The majority rejected the Florida Supreme Court’s reasoning and observed that it improperly focused “on whether Bostick was ‘free to leave,’ rather than on the principle that those words were intended to capture.” The majority reasoned “[w]hen police attempt to question a person who is walking down the street or through an airport lobby, it makes sense to inquire whether a reasonable person would feel free to continue walking. But when the person is seated on a bus and has no desire to leave, the degree to which a reasonable person would feel that he or she could leave is not an accurate measure of the coercive effect of the encounter.” For example, based on the facts of this case “mere fact that Bostick did not feel free to leave the bus does not mean that the police seized him. Bostick was a passenger on a bus that was scheduled to depart. He would not have felt free to leave the bus even if the police had not been present. Bostick’s movements were ‘confined’ in a sense, but thi
s was the natural result of his decision to take the bus it says nothing about whether or not the police conduct at issue was coercive.”
To the contrary, “Bostick’s freedom of movement was restricted by a factor independent of police conduct – i.e., by his being a passenger on a bus.” As such, “the appropriate inquiry is whether a reasonable person would feel free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.”
Dissent: Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun, and Justice Stevens drafted a dissenting opinion arguing that “the law enforcement technique with which we are confronted in this case – the suspicionless police sweep of buses in intrastate or interstate travel – bears all of the indicia of coercion and unjustified intrusion associated with the general warrant.” As such, “the bus sweep at issue in this case violates the core values of the Fourth Amendment.”
The dissenting justices “have no objection to the manner in which the majority frames the test for determining whether a suspicionless bus sweep amounts to a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure.’ [They] agree that the appropriate question is whether a passenger who is approached during such a sweep ‘would feel free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.’ What [they] cannot understand is how the majority can possibly suggest an affirmative answer to this question.”
Instead, the justices would have found that “the issue is not whether a passenger in respondent’s position would have felt free to deny consent to the search of his bag, but whether such a passenger – without being apprised of his rights – would have felt free to terminate the antecedent encounter with the police.”
Discussion. It is interesting to read the majority and dissenting opinions alongside one another to see the tests the respective justices would apply.
The United States Supreme Court held that if the police indicated that Bostick was free to refuse consent and terminate the encounter, and that the police would not detain him if he refused, his consent was voluntary. Because there was no finding by the lower court using that standard, the court reversed the decision of the state supreme court and remanded the case to determine if, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would have felt free to refuse to cooperate with the police, and thus determine if respondent’s consent was voluntary.
- Advocates: Kenneth W. Starr Argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal Joan Fowler Argued the cause for the petitioner Donald B. Ayer Argued the cause for the respondents
- Petitioner: Florida
- Respondent: Bostick
- DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
- Location: Bus where Bostick boarded
|Citation:||501 US 429 (1991)|
|Argued:||Feb 26, 1991|
|Decided:||Jun 20, 1991|