United States v. Brignoni-Ponce

Facts of the Case

Defendant Brignoni was convicted for knowingly transporting illegal immigrants in violation of § 274(a)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C.S. § 1324(a)(2). Defendant’s vehicle was stopped by United States Border Patrol officers on roving patrol because of the passengers’ apparent Mexican descent. The officers later learned that passengers had entered the country illegally. Defendant filed a motion to suppress the testimony regarding the passengers, claiming this evidence was the fruit of an illegal seizure in violation of U.S. Const. amend. IV. The district court denied the motion, and defendant was convicted. The United States Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the motion to suppress should have been granted because the Fourth Amendment precluded such a stop when based merely on the apparent Mexican ancestry of a vehicle’s occupants. The Government sought review.

Question

Does the Fourth Amendment prohibit Border Patrol agents from stopping a vehicle and questioning its occupants based solely on their appearance?

CONCLUSION

Yes. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. delivered the opinion for the 9-0 majority. The Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment required there to be reasonable suspicion for border patrol agents to stop a vehicle and question its occupants. This requirement allows the government to act in the public interest of ensuring legal immigration without infringing on the rights of legal immigrants and others. Because the border patrol agents in this case did not have a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing when they stopped Brignoni-Ponce’s vehicle, the motion to suppress any testimony gained from that illegal seizure should have been suppressed.Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that the majority’s decision only pertains to roving patrols and that there are many other cases in which stopping a vehicle would not be constitutionally suspect. In his opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice William O. Douglas wrote that the Fourth Amendment required the police to show probable cause to stop a vehicle, and any lower standard unreasonably weakened the protections of the Fourth Amendment. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote a separate opinion concurring in judgment in which he argued that the idea of reasonableness embodied in the Fourth Amendment must take all the circumstances into account when weighing the public interest against the rights of the individual. Justice Harry A. Blackmun joined in the opinion concurring in judgment. In his separate opinion concurring in the judgment, Justice Byron R. White wrote that the majority’s opinion strains the requirements of the Fourth Amendment in an attempt to solve the immigration problem that could be better handled by legislative action. Justice Harry A. Blackmun joined in the opinion concurring in the judgment.

Case Information

  • Citation: 422 US 873 (1975)
  • Argued: Feb 18, 1975
  • Decided Jun 30, 1975