United States v. Villamonte-Marquez

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Villamonte-Marquez
LOCATION: Residence of Gates

DOCKET NO.: 81-1350
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 462 US 579 (1983)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 1983
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1983

Samuel A. Alito, Jr. - on behalf of the petitioner
Richard I. Ieyoub - on behalf of the Respondent
Richard P. Ieyoub - for respondents

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Villamonte-Marquez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 1983 in United States v. Villamonte-Marquez

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in the United States against Villamonte-Marquez.

Mr. Alito, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, since before the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, Customs officers have been authorized by federal statute to conduct suspicionless boardings of vessels for the purpose of checking their documents.

The issue in this case is whether such boardings in inland waters constitute unreasonable searches or seizures.

The facts of this case may be briefly summarized.

At about 11:30 in the morning, in March, 1980, a patrolling Customs officer spotted a 40-foot sailboat equipped with a diesel engine, anchored about 18 miles inland, in the Calcasieu River Ship Channel, which is a waterway connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the Customs port of entry at Lake Charles, Louisiana.

The officer and those on board his boat had never before seen a sailboat in that waterway, which is traveled by large commercial vessels.

On the stern of the sailboat was the name of the vessel, the Henry Morgan II, and its hailing port, "Basilea", which it turns out is the Latin translation for Basel, Switzerland.

Although the officer did not recognize the name "Basilea", he correctly believed that it denoted a foreign port.

At this time, a large freighter was heading up the ship channel, and it created a huge wake that caused the sailboat to rock so violently back and forth that it appeared it was about to capsize.

In fact, at one point the sailboat's mast actually touched the water, and its keel emerged from the water.

The Customs officer called out to Respondent Hamparian, who was the only person visible on deck, and asked if he was all right, but Hamparian merely shrugged his shoulders, which suggested to the officer that he was unable to speak English.

The officer then decided to board the vessel for the purpose of checking the documents.

He did so, and while examining the documents, he detected the odor of burning marijuana.

He also saw through an open hatch burlap-wrapped bales of what he believed was marijuana.

The Respondents were then arrested.

The boat was searched.

Fifty-eight hundred pounds of marijuana, with a street value of about $7 million, was seized.

Respondents were convicted of drug offenses, but their convictions were reversed by the Court of Appeals on the ground that there was no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and therefore the officer was prohibited from boarding the vessel in inland waters for the purpose of checking the documents.

With these facts in mind, it bears emphasis that the only authority at issue in this case is the authority to board the vessel and check the documents, and not the authority to search any other portion of the craft.

It also bears emphasis that the Henry Morgan II was not a small American boat on an inland lake.

It was a seagoing foreign vessel on a ship channel connecting the open sea with the Customs port of entry, and it was located just a relatively short distance from the open sea.

Our position, of course, is that suspicionless boardings and inspections, whether on inland or Customs waters, are reasonable, and therefore do not violate the Fourth Amendment.

It is strong evidence of their reasonableness that they were authorized by the First Congress, which of course proposed the Bill of Rights to the States, and they have been continuously authorized by statute ever since.

Why is this so?

First, because there is simply no other adequate alternative way of enforcing the documentation laws, and the documentation laws serve many vital functions.

They are the primary method of identifying vessels.

They serve to regulate the entry and departure of persons and goods traveling by water.

They are used in collecting import and tonnage duties, in conserving natural resources, and promoting safe shipping and boating.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Mr. Alito, you have been addressing the merits from the beginning.