United States v. Arvizu

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court Eastern District of Michigan

DOCKET NO.: 00-1519
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 534 US 266 (2002)
ARGUED: Nov 27, 2001
DECIDED: Jan 15, 2002

Austin C. Schlick - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Victoria A. Brambl - Tucson, Arizona, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1998, Ralph Arvizu was stopped by Border Patrol Agent Clinton Stoddard while driving on an unpaved road in a remote area of southeastern Arizona. A number of factors prompted Stoddard to stop Arvizu, including his slowing down, his failure to acknowledge the agent, the raised position of the children's knees, and their odd waving. After receiving permission to search the vehicle, Stoddard found more than 100 pounds of marijuana. Arvizu was charged with possession with intent to distribute. Arvizu moved to suppress the marijuana, arguing among other things that Stoddard did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle as required by the Fourth Amendment. Denying the motion, the District Court cited a number of facts that gave Stoddard reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle, including its location. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that the District Court relied on factors that carried little or no weight in reasonable-suspicion calculus and that the remaining factors were not enough to render the stop permissible. In the appellate court's view, fact-specific weighing of circumstances or other multifactor tests introduced uncertainty and unpredictability into the Fourth Amendment analysis, making it necessary to clearly delimit the factors that an officer may consider in making stops such as this one.


Did a border agent have reasonable suspicion to believe that Ralph Arvizu was engaged in illegal activity based on a number of factors?

Media for United States v. Arvizu

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 27, 2001 in United States v. Arvizu

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 15, 2002 in United States v. Arvizu

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the court to announce in NO. 00-1519, United States versus Arvizu.

On a January afternoon four years ago, border patrol agent Clinton Stoddard was working on a checkpoint along US highway 191 about 30 miles north of Douglas, Arizona which lies on the United States Mexico border.

At the checkpoint, border patrol agents stop cars to look for illegal immigration and smuggling.

Smugglers try to avoid the checkpoint by taking unpaved and primitive back roads around them.

Stoddard received a report that a sensor placed along the back road had been triggered indicating that a vehicle might be following a common smuggling route through a thinly populated area between the highway and a national forest.

He drove to investigate and saw respondent's mini van.

It slowed dramatically.

The respondent who was driving appeared stiff and nervous.

Three children were inside.

The position of the children’s feet in the back seat suggested cargo on the floor.

Stoddard followed the mini van and learned that it was registered to a Douglas neighborhood notorious for smuggling.

After the mini van turned away from known recreational areas and took the last turn to avoid the checkpoints, Stoddard decided to stop it.

A vehicle search uncovered 128 pounds of marijuana, some of it concealed on a duffel bag beneath the children’s feet.

Respondent was charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana, he moved to suppress the evidence of the drugs arguing that the stop was not supported by any reasonable suspicion as required by the Fourth Amendment.

The District Court ruled against him but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

And in opinion followed with the Clerk of the Court today we reverse the Court of Appeals.

In its opinion the Court of Appeals set out to clearly delimit the factors an officers can consider in making stops like the one involved here.

It held at seven factors including respondents slowing down were simply out of bounds in deciding whether there was reasonable suspicion and that the remaining factors do not satisfy the Fourth Amendment.

This methodology is totally contrary to our prior decisions.

In cases such as Cortez versus United States we have siad that the reviewing court should make reasonable suspicion determination by looking at the totality of the circumstances of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing.

This standard allows officers to draw on their own experience and training to make inferences from the cumulative information before them.

It is irreducible to a neat set of rules.

In United States versus Sokolow we rejected a holding by the Court of Appeals that sought to distinguish between incriminating evidence and other types of evidence.

The Court of Appeals approach in this case fairs no better it would seriously undercut the totality of the circumstances principle that governs reasonable suspicion determination.

Facts that maybe unremarkable on one context, maybe quite relevant in another, analyzed under the proper standard to stop was constitutionally permissible.

The decision is unanimous.

Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion.