United States v. Arvizu Case Brief

Why is the case important?

After tripping magnetic sensors on a common smuggling route with his mini-van, respondent was observed and eventually stopped by a border agent. A search of the van revealed 100 pounds of marijuana.

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.


Whether certain factors, alone . . . susceptible to innocent explanation, and some factors are more probative than others, taken together . . . sufficed to form a particularized and objective basis for stopping the vehicle in compliance with the Fourth Amendment.


Yes. The court built its analysis on Terry’s reasonable-suspicion standard. In light of that, the Court reiterated that courts must look 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 specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that ‘might well elude an untrained person.’ The appeals court erred by eliminating the seemingly innocuous behavior of the driver and the children, in light of the other circumstances, such as the van’s presence on a road know to smugglers without any overt reason and its evasion of the check point. Stoddard was entitled to make an assessment of the situation in light of his specialized training and familiarity with the customs of the area’s inhabitants. In conclusion, having considered the tot
ality of the circumstances and given due weight to the factual inferences drawn by the law enforcement officer and District Court Judge, the court held that Stoddard had reasonable suspicion to believe that respondent was engaged in illegal activity.
Concurrence. J. Scalia, agreed with the analysis of the court, but did not see how deferring to the District Court’s factual inferences (as opposed to its findings of fact) is compatible with de novo review.


The United States Supreme Court held, however, that suppression of the drug evidence was not required, since the totality of the circumstances warranted the stop for further investigation of defendant’s vehicle, regardless of whether the facts taken in isolation appeared innocent. It was reasonable for the agent to make common sense inferences from his observations and his experience that defendant was attempting to avoid the checkpoint, rather than taking his family on a recreational outing.

  • Case Brief: 2002
  • Petitioner: United States
  • Respondent: Arvizu
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 534 US 266 (2002)
Argued: Nov 27, 2001
Decided: Jan 15, 2002