Florida v. Bostick

LOCATION:Bus where Bostick boarded

DOCKET NO.: 89-1717
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: Florida Supreme Court

CITATION: 501 US 429 (1991)
ARGUED: Feb 26, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 20, 1991

Donald B. Ayer – Argued the cause for the respondents
Joan Fowler – Argued the cause for the petitioner
Kenneth W. Starr – Argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal

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 bus” in order to avoid questioning. Florida appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Is the acquisition of evidence during random bus searches, conducted pursuant to passengers’ consent, a per se violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unconstitutional search and seizure?

Media for Florida v. Bostick

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 26, 1991 in Florida v. Bostick

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 20, 1991 in Florida v. Bostick

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinions of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

The first case, 89-1717 is the case of Florida versus Bostick.

This case comes to us on certiorari to the Florida Supreme Court.

The respondent, Terrence Bostick, claims that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police searched his luggage after he gave them consent to do so.

At the time the search took place, Bostick was a passenger on a bus.

Two officers boarded the bus at a scheduled stop, asked Bostick a few questions and then, even though they had no reason to suspect Bostick of a crime, the officers asked whether they could search his luggage.

The officers specifically advised Bostick that he had the right to refuse.

Bostick gave the officers permission to search.

The search revealed cocaine and Bostick was arrested and prosecuted.

His motion to suppress the cocaine as the fruit of an unlawful seizure was denied by the Trial Court and the State Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.

The Florida Supreme Court reversed it, however.

It determined that Bostick had been unlawfully seized because a reasonable passenger would not have felt free to leave the bus to avoid questioning by the police.

We understand the Florida Supreme Court who have established a per se rule that an impermissible seizure inevitably results when police asks questions of bus passengers in the absence of an articulable suspicion.

In an opinion filed today, we reverse and remand.

The Florida Supreme Court erred in adapting a per se rule that every encounter on a bus is a seizure.

An encounter that is consensual does not trigger Fourth Amendment scrutiny.

Our cases, applying this principle, leave no doubt that the police may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, ask questions of an individual even though the police have no articulable suspicion that a crime has been committed, and they may request consent to search the persons luggage so long as the officers do not convey a message that compliance with their request is required.

The appropriate test, as our prior cases made clear, is whether taking into account all of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, a reasonable person would feel free to decline the officers request or otherwise terminate the encounter.

That the encounter took place in the cramped confines of a bus is one relevant factor that should be taken into account.

We do not agree, however, with the Florida Supreme Court that this single factor is dispositive in every case.

The facts leave some doubt whether a seizure actually occurred in this case.

But we refrain from deciding the issue ourselves and remand it so the Florida Courts may evaluate the seizure question under the correct legal standard.

Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion which Justices Balckmun and Stevens have joined.