Ornelas v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Seminole Tribe

DOCKET NO.: 95-5257
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 517 US 690 (1996)
ARGUED: Mar 26, 1996
DECIDED: May 28, 1996

Cornelia T. L. Pillard - Argued the cause on behalf of the United States
Peter D. Isakoff - By invitation of the Court as amicus curiae, argued the cause in support of the judgment below
Robert G. LeBell - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Saul Ornelas and Ismael Ornelas-Ledesma were arrested in Wisconsin after suspicious activity led to the discovery of cocaine in the defendants' car. In a motion to suppress the evidence, the defendants alleged that their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated in their detainment and in the police search of the car. The District Court denied the motion and the defendants pleaded guilty. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the District Court but for different reasons.


Should courts use a de novo standard in determining if a police search conducted without a warrant was based on reasonable suspicion and probable cause?

Media for Ornelas v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 26, 1996 in Ornelas v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 95-5257, Saul Ornelas and Ismael Ornelas-Ledesma v. The United States.

Mr. LeBell, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Robert G. LeBell:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

We believe this Court should maintain the de novo review standard for Fourth Amendment warrantless cases as it has previously done in First Amendment cases, Fourth Amendment cases, Fifth Amendment cases, and Sixth Amendment cases.

We believe that the recently enunciated decision in Keohane is instructive in how the principle is evolved in determining that de novo review is appropriate in warrantless Fourth Amendment cases.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. LeBell, it seems to me in... either the magistrate or the district judge made a finding of fact as to credibility.

You wouldn't suggest that that particular finding be reviewed de novo, would you?

Robert G. LeBell:

No, Justice Rehnquist.

I believe that that is historical fact, and that an historical fact determined below is to be given deference.

What we take issue with is the determination, legal determination whether the law was correctly applied, and that mixed question of law and fact we believe should be accorded de novo review.

We believe that there are three sound reasons why de novo review should be accorded warrantless Fourth Amendment cases.

First of all, historically this Court has given de novo review for constitutionally enshrouded issues.

Secondly, de novo review furthers the appellate directive of developing the law, making consistency in the law, and basically in error-correcting, and thirdly, we believe that the decision, or, strike that, the de novo review standard is consistent with the principles enunciated in Gates v. Illinois.

This Court has in the past addressed issues that are encapsulated in the Fifth Amendment, and basically it has determined that de novo review is appropriate.

In the Keohane decision, this Court basically said, although the issue of voluntary... strike that, of custody is fact-laden, in other words, the issue is a question of what facts occurred during the course of the custody, still we believe that the question of whether, in fact, the person was in custody for the purposes of Miranda requires de novo review.

That was Federal habeas, though, under a statute, wasn't it?

That is correct.

It was a question of whether there was a presumption of correctness under 2254(d), but still the Court--

William H. Rehnquist:

This is a direct appeal.

Robert G. LeBell:

--That is correct.

We do not believe that the differentiation between a habeas action or a direct appeal should in any way prevent this Court from according de novo review or plenary review in Fourth Amendment warrantless cases.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, I can see why you argue naturally for plenary review, but I don't see how you could derive much support from a holding that was based on the Federal habeas statute, which this isn't.

Robert G. LeBell:

I believe I'm looking at the words that were enunciated in that decision.

Those cases, that case was also backed up in this Court's decision in Ker, this Court's decision in Beck, Carroll, and Brineger, all of those--

William H. Rehnquist:

Maybe those would be better cases for you to rely on, then.

Robert G. LeBell:


Those Fourth Amendment cases that have been previously been decided basically, whether the Court actually spoke the words de novo, it certainly conducted an independent review.

In the Ker case, in fact, the Court said that when it is to be... it's considering a constitutionally enshrouded issue, and specifically Fourth Amendment, it's going to be an independent review, and the importance of that is to assure that the Fourth Amendment as a constitutional right is, in fact, upheld.

Similarly, the Court decided the same principle in Beck.

In Carroll and Brineger, again, those two decisions were based on a fundamental reevaluation of the law and, based on that reevaluation of the law, some of the cases were overturned, and some of them were affirmed.