California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991)

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Late one evening in April 1988, Officers Brian McColgin and Jerry Pertoso were on patrol in a high-crime area of Oakland, California.  They were dressed in street clothes but wearing jackets with “Police” embossed on both front and back.  Their unmarked car proceeded west on Foothill Boulevard, and turned south onto 63rd Avenue.  As they rounded the corner, they saw four or five youths huddled around a small red car parked at the curb.  When the youths saw the officers’ car approaching they apparently panicked, and took flight.  The respondent here, Hodari D., and one companion ran west through an alley; the others fled south.  The red car also headed south, at a high rate of speed.

The officers were suspicious and gave chase.  McColgin remained in the car and continued south on 63rd Avenue; Pertoso left the car, ran back north along 63rd, then west on Foothill Boulevard, and turned south on 62nd Avenue.  Hodari, meanwhile, emerged from the alley onto 62nd and ran north.  Looking behind as he ran, he did not turn and see Pertoso until the officer was almost upon him, whereupon he tossed away what appeared to be a small rock.  A moment later, Pertoso tackled Hodari, handcuffed him, and radioed for assistance.  Hodari was found to be carrying $130 in cash and a pager; and the rock he had discarded was found to be crack cocaine.

In the juvenile proceeding brought against him, Hodari moved to suppress the evidence relating to the cocaine.  The court denied the motion without opinion.  The California Court of Appeal reversed, holding that Hodari had been “seized” when he saw Officer Pertoso running towards him, that this seizure was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and that the evidence of cocaine had to be suppressed as the fruit of that illegal seizure.  The California Supreme Court denied the State’s application for review.  We granted certiorari.

As this case comes to us, the only issue presented is whether, at the time he dropped the drugs, Hodari had been “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  So, respondent argues, the drugs were the fruit of that seizure and the evidence concerning them was properly excluded.  If not, the drugs were abandoned by Hodari and lawfully recovered by the police, and the evidence should have been admitted.  (In addition, of course, Pertoso’s seeing the rock of cocaine, at least if he recognized it as such, would provide reasonable suspicion for the unquestioned seizure that occurred when he tackled Hodari.

We have long understood that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against “unreasonable . . . seizures” includes seizure of the person.  From the time of the founding to the present, the word “seizure” has meant a “taking possession.”  For most purposes at common law, the word connoted not merely grasping, or applying physical force to, the animate or inanimate object in question, but actually bringing it within physical control.  A ship still fleeing, even though under attack, would not be considered to have been seized as a war prize.  To constitute an arrest, however—the quintessential “seizure of the person” under our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence—the mere grasping or application of physical force with lawful authority, whether or not it succeeded in subduing the arrestee, was sufficient.  As one commentator has described it:

“There can be constructive detention, which will constitute an arrest, although the party is never actually brought within the physical control of the party making an arrest.  This is accomplished by merely touching, however slightly, the body of the accused, by the party making the arrest and for that purpose, although he does not succeed in stopping or holding him even for an instant; as where the bailiff had tried to arrest one who fought him off by a fork, the court said, If the bailiff had touched him, that had been an arrest . . . .”

To say that an arrest is effected by the slightest application of physical force, despite the arrestee’s escape, is not to say that for Fourth Amendment purposes there is a continuing arrest during the period of fugitivity.  If, for example, Pertoso had laid his hands upon Hodari to arrest him, but Hodari had broken away and had then cast away the cocaine, it would hardly be realistic to say that that disclosure had been made during the course of an arrest.  The present case, however, is even one step further removed.  It does not involve the application of any physical force; Hodari was untouched by Officer Pertoso at the time he discarded the cocaine.  His defense relies instead upon the proposition that a seizure occurs “when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.”  Hodari contends (and we accept as true for purposes of this decision) that Pertoso’s pursuit qualified as a “show of authority” calling upon Hodari to halt.  The narrow question before us is whether, with respect to a show of authority as with respect to application of physical force, a seizure occurs even though the subject does not yield.  We hold that it does not.

The language of the Fourth Amendment, of course, cannot sustain respondent’s contention.  The word “seizure” readily bears the meaning of a laying on of hands or application of physical force to restrain movement, even when it is ultimately unsuccessful.  (“She seized the purse-snatcher, but he broke out of her grasp.”)  It does not remotely apply, however, to the prospect of a policeman yelling “Stop, in the name of the law!” at a fleeing form that continues to flee.  That is no seizure.  Nor can the result respondent wishes to achieve be produced—indirectly, as it were—by suggesting that Pertoso’s uncomplied-with show of authority was a common-law arrest, and then appealing to the principle that all common-law arrests are seizures.  An arrest requires either physical force (as described above) or, where that is absent, submission to the assertion of authority.

“Mere words will not constitute an arrest, while, on the other hand, no actual, physical touching is essential.  The apparent inconsistency in the two parts of this statement is explained by the fact that an assertion of authority and purpose to arrest followed by submission of the arrestee constitutes an arrest.  There can be no arrest without either touching or submission.”

We do not think it desirable, even as a policy matter, to stretch the Fourth Amendment beyond its words and beyond the meaning of arrest, as respondent urges.  Street pursuits always place the public at some risk, and compliance with police orders to stop should therefore be encouraged.  Only a few of those orders, we must presume, will be without adequate basis, and since the addressee has no ready means of identifying the deficient ones it almost invariably is the responsible course to comply.  Unlawful orders will not be deterred, moreover, by sanctioning through the exclusionary rule those of them that are not obeyed.  Since policemen do not command “Stop!” expecting to be ignored, or give chase hoping to be outrun, it fully suffices to apply the deterrent to their genuine, successful seizures.

Respondent contends that his position is sustained by the so-called Mendenhall test, formulated by Justice Stewart’s opinion in United States v. Mendenhall and adopted by the Court in later cases, “A person has been ‘seized’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.”  In seeking to rely upon that test here, respondent fails to read it carefully.  It says that a person has been seized “only if,” not that he has been seized “whenever”; it states a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for seizure—or, more precisely, for seizure effected through a “show of authority.”  Mendenhall establishes that the test for existence of a “show of authority” is an objective one: not whether the citizen perceived that he was being ordered to restrict his movement, but whether the officer’s words and actions would have conveyed that to a reasonable person.  Application of this objective test was the basis for our decision in the other case principally relied upon by respondent, where we concluded that the police cruiser’s slow following of the defendant did not convey the message that he was not free to disregard the police and go about his business.  We did not address in Chesternut, however, the question whether, if the Mendenhall test was met—if the message that the defendant was not free to leave had been conveyed—a Fourth Amendment seizure would have occurred.

Quite relevant to the present case, however, was our decision in Brower v. Inyo County (1989).  In that case, police cars with flashing lights had chased the decedent for 20 miles—surely an adequate “show of authority”—but he did not stop until his fatal crash into a police-erected blockade.  The issue was whether his death could be held to be the consequence of an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  We did not even consider the possibility that a seizure could have occurred during the course of the chase because, as we explained, that “show of authority” did not produce his stop.  And we discussed an opinion of Justice Holmes, involving a situation not much different from the present case, where revenue agents had picked up containers dropped by moonshiners whom they were pursuing without adequate warrant.  The containers were not excluded as the product of an unlawful seizure because “the defendant’s own acts, and those of his associates, disclosed the jug, the jar and the bottle—and there was no seizure in the sense of the law when the officers examined the contents of each after they had been abandoned.”  The same is true here.

In sum, assuming that Pertoso’s pursuit in the present case constituted a “show of authority” enjoining Hodari to halt, since Hodari did not comply with that injunction he was not seized until he was tackled.  The cocaine abandoned while he was running was in this case not the fruit of a seizure, and his motion to exclude evidence of it was properly denied.  We reverse the decision of the California Court of Appeal, and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

 It is so ordered.

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Modification History

File Created: 07/30/2018
Last Modified:  08/10/2018


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