United States v. Flores-Montano

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Manuel Flores-Montano
LOCATION: Polk County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 02-1794
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 541 US 149 (2004)
GRANTED: Oct 14, 2003
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 30, 2004

ADVOCATES:
Daniel J. Popeo - for the Washington Legal Foundation et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
David M. Siegel - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging affirmance
John Wesley Hall, Jr. - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging affirmance
Lisa Schiavo Blatt -
Lisa S. Blatt - argued the cause for Petitioner
Lisa Kemler - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging affirmance
Richard A. Samp - for the Washington Legal Foundation et al. as amici curiae urging reversal
Steven F. Hubachek - argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

When Manuel Flores-Montano approached the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. Customs inspectors noticed his hand shaking; an inspector tapped Flores-Montano's gas tank with a screwdriver and noticed that the tank sounded solid; a drug-sniffing dog alerted to the vehicle. After a mechanic began disassembling the car's fuel tank, inspectors found 37 kilograms of marijuana bricks in the tank.

Flores-Montano was charged in federal district court in California for importing and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute. Flores-Montano moved to suppress the marijuana finding on Fourth Amendment grounds. He argued that the search that yielded the marijuana finding was intrusive and non-routine and therefore required reasonable suspicion (which, he argued, was not present in his case).

Relying on U.S. v. Molina-Tarazon, a case decided by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002 (with similar circumstances), the district court agreed that the search was non-routine and thus required reasonable suspicion. The government, the court held, failed to prove that reasonable suspicion prompted its search. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Question

Does the Fourth Amendment require customs officers at the international border to have reasonable suspicion in order to remove, disassemble, and search a vehicle's gas tank for illegal material?

Media for United States v. Flores-Montano

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 25, 2004 in United States v. Flores-Montano

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 30, 2004 in United States v. Flores-Montano

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 02-1794, United States versus Flores-Montano.

When respondent, Manuel Flores Montano attempted to enter the United States at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in Southern California, customs officials seized 81 pounds of marihuana from the gas tank of the station wagon.

The search involved the removal and disassembly of the gas tank via mechanic under contract with the Customs.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Fourth Amendment forbade the fuel tank search absent reasonable suspicion.

We granted certiorari and now reverse.

Time, and again, we have stated that searches made at the boarder pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the boarder.

Congress, since the beginning of our government, has granted the executive plannery authority to conduct routine searches and seizures at the boarder without probable cause or a warrant in order to regulate the collection of duties and to prevent the introduction of contraband into this country.

It is axiomatic that the United States, as sovereign, has the inherent authority to protect and a paramount interest in protecting its national integrity.

That interest in protecting the boarders as illustrated in this case by the evidence that smugglers frequently attempt to penetrate our boarders with contraband secreted in their automobiles fuel tank.

Respondent urges that he has a privacy interest in his fuel tank and that the suspicionless disassembly of his tank is an invasion of his privacy.

But on many occasions, we have noted that the expectation of privacy is less at the boarder than it is in the interior, and we have long recognized that automobiles seeking entry into this country may be searched.

It is difficult to imagine how the search of a gas tank which should be solely a repository for fuel could be more of an invasion of privacy than the search of the automobile’s passenger compartment.

Respondent also argues that the disassembly and reassembly of his gas tank is a significant depravation of his property interest because it may damage the vehicle.

He does not, and on this record, cannot truly contend that the procedure of removal, disassembly, and reassembly of the fuel tank in this case or any other has resulted in serious damage to the property.

A gas tank search involves a brief procedure that can be reversed without damaging the safety or operation of the vehicle, and any interference with a motorist's possessory interest is justified by the government’s paramount interest in protecting the boarder.

For these reasons, we hold that the government’s authority to conduct suspicionless inspections at the boarder includes the authority to remove, disassemble, and reassemble a vehicle’s fuel tank.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the case is remanded.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.

Justice Breyer has filed a concurring opinion.