United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983)

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE O’CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits law enforcement authorities from temporarily detaining personal luggage for exposure to a trained narcotics detection dog on the basis of reasonable suspicion that the luggage contains narcotics.  Given the enforcement problems associated with the detection of narcotics trafficking and the minimal intrusion that a properly limited detention would entail, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit such a detention.  On the facts of this case, however, we hold that the police conduct exceeded the bounds of a permissible investigative detention of the luggage.

Respondent Raymond J. Place’s behavior aroused the suspicions of law enforcement officers as he waited in line at the Miami International Airport to purchase a ticket to New York’s La Guardia Airport. As Place proceeded to the gate for his flight, the agents approached him and requested his airline ticket and some identification.  Place complied with the request and consented to a search of the two suitcases he had checked.  Because his flight was about to depart, however, the agents decided not to search the luggage.

Prompted by Place’s parting remark that he had recognized that they were police, the agents inspected the address tags on the checked luggage and noted discrepancies in the two street addresses.  Further investigation revealed that neither address existed, and that the telephone number Place had given the airline belonged to a third address on the same street.  On the basis of their encounter with Place and this information, the Miami agents called Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) authorities in New York to relay their information about Place.

Two DEA agents waited for Place at the arrival gate at La Guardia Airport in New York.  There again, his behavior aroused the suspicion of the agents.  After he had claimed his two bags and called a limousine, the agents decided to approach him.  They identified themselves as federal narcotics agents, to which Place responded that he knew they were “cops” and had spotted them as soon as he had deplaned.

One of the agents informed Place that, based on their own observations and information obtained from the Miami authorities, they believed that he might be carrying narcotics.  After identifying the bags as belonging to him, Place stated that a number of police at the Miami Airport had surrounded him and searched his baggage.  The agents responded that their information was to the contrary.  The agents requested and received identification from Place—a New Jersey driver’s license, on which the agents later ran a computer check that disclosed no offenses, and his airline ticket receipt.  When Place refused to consent to a search of his luggage, one of the agents told him that they were going to take the luggage to a federal judge to try to obtain a search warrant, and that Place was free to accompany them.  Place declined, but obtained from one of the agents telephone numbers at which the agents could be reached.

The agents then took the bags to Kennedy Airport, where they subjected the bags to a “sniff test” by a trained narcotics detection dog.  The dog reacted positively to the smaller of the two bags but ambiguously to the larger bag.  Approximately 90 minutes had elapsed since the seizure of respondent’s luggage.  Because it was late on a Friday afternoon, the agents retained the luggage until Monday morning, when they secured a search warrant from a Magistrate for the smaller bag.  Upon opening that bag, the agents discovered 1,125 grams of cocaine.

Place was indicted for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).  In the District Court, Place moved to suppress the contents of the luggage seized from him at La Guardia Airport, claiming that the warrantless seizure of the luggage violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Applying the standard of Terry v. Ohio (1968) to the detention of personal property, it concluded that detention of the bags could be justified if based on reasonable suspicion to believe that the bags contained narcotics.  Finding reasonable suspicion, the District Court held that Place’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated by seizure of the bags by the DEA agents.  Place pleaded guilty to the possession charge, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.

On appeal of the conviction, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed.  The majority assumed both that Terry principles could be applied to justify a warrantless seizure of baggage on less than probable cause, and that reasonable suspicion existed to justify the investigatory stop of Place.  The majority concluded, however, that the prolonged seizure of Place’s baggage exceeded the permissible limits of a Terry-type investigative stop, and consequently amounted to a seizure without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

We granted certiorari and now affirm.

The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Although, in the context of personal property, and particularly containers, the Fourth Amendment challenge is typically to the subsequent search of the container, rather than to its initial seizure by the authorities, our cases reveal some general principles regarding seizures. In the ordinary case, the Court has viewed a seizure of personal property as per se unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment unless it is accomplished pursuant to a judicial warrant issued upon probable cause and particularly describing the items to be seized.  Where law enforcement authorities have probable cause to believe that a container holds contraband or evidence of a crime, but have not secured a warrant, the Court has interpreted the Amendment to permit seizure of the property, pending issuance of a warrant to examine its contents, if the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.  For example, “objects such as weapons or contraband found in a public place may be seized by the police without a warrant” because, under these circumstances, the risk of the item’s disappearance or use for its intended purpose before a warrant may be obtained outweighs the interest in possession.

In this case, the Government asks us to recognize the reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment of warrantless seizures of personal luggage from the custody of the owner on the basis of less than probable cause, for the purpose of pursuing a limited course of investigation, short of opening the luggage, that would quickly confirm or dispel the authorities’ suspicion.  Specifically, we are asked to apply the principles of Terry v. Ohio to permit such seizures on the basis of reasonable, articulable suspicion, premised on objective facts, that the luggage contains contraband or evidence of a crime.  In our view, such application is appropriate.

In Terry, the Court first recognized

“The narrow authority of police officers who suspect criminal activity to make limited intrusions on an individual’s personal security based on less than probable cause.”

In approving the limited search for weapons, or “frisk,” of an individual the police reasonably believed to be armed and dangerous, the Court implicitly acknowledged the authority of the police to make a forcible stop of a person when the officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity.  That implicit proposition was embraced openly in Adams v. Williams (1972) where the Court relied on Terry to hold that the police officer lawfully made a forcible stop of the suspect to investigate an informant’s tip that the suspect was carrying narcotics and a concealed weapon.

The exception to the probable cause requirement for limited seizures of the person recognized in Terry and its progeny rests on a balancing of the competing interests to determine the reasonableness of the type of seizure involved within the meaning of “the Fourth Amendment’s general proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  We must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.  When the nature and extent of the detention are minimally intrusive of the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests, the opposing law enforcement interests can support a seizure based on less than probable cause.

We examine first the governmental interest offered as a justification for a brief seizure of luggage from the suspect’s custody for the purpose of pursuing a limited course of investigation.  The Government contends that, where the authorities possess specific and articulable facts warranting a reasonable belief that a traveler’s luggage contains narcotics, the governmental interest in seizing the luggage briefly to pursue further investigation is substantial.  We agree.  As observed in United States v. Mendenhall, “the public has a compelling interest in detecting those who would traffic in deadly drugs for personal profit.”

Respondent suggests that, absent some special law enforcement interest such as officer safety, a generalized interest in law enforcement cannot justify an intrusion on an individual’s Fourth Amendment interests in the absence of probable cause.  Our prior cases, however, do not support this proposition.  In Terry, we described the governmental interests supporting the initial seizure of the person as

“effective crime prevention and detection; it is this interest which underlies the recognition that a police officer may, in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner, approach a person for purposes of investigating possibly criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest.”

Similarly, in Michigan v. Summers, we identified three law enforcement interests that justified limited detention of the occupants of the premises during execution of a valid search warrant: “preventing flight in the event that incriminating evidence is found,” “minimizing the risk of harm” both to the officers and the occupants, and “orderly completion of the search.”  The test is whether those interests are sufficiently “substantial,” not whether they are independent of the interest in investigating crimes effectively and apprehending suspects.  The context of a particular law enforcement practice, of course, may affect the determination whether a brief intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests on less than probable cause is essential to effective criminal investigation.  Because of the inherently transient nature of drug courier activity at airports, allowing police to make brief investigative stops of persons at airports on reasonable suspicion of drug-trafficking substantially enhances the likelihood that police will be able to prevent the flow of narcotics into distribution channels.

Against this strong governmental interest, we must weigh the nature and extent of the intrusion upon the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights when the police briefly detain luggage for limited investigative purposes.  On this point, respondent Place urges that the rationale for a Terry stop of the person is wholly inapplicable to investigative detentions of personalty.  Specifically, the Terry exception to the probable cause requirement is premised on the notion that a Terry-type stop of the person is substantially less intrusive of a person’s liberty interests than a formal arrest.  In the property context, however, Place urges, there are no degrees of intrusion.  Once the owner’s property is seized, the dispossession is absolute.

We disagree.  The intrusion on possessory interests occasioned by a seizure of one’s personal effects can vary both in its nature and extent.  The seizure may be made after the owner has relinquished control of the property to a third party or, as here, from the immediate custody and control of the owner.  Moreover, the police may confine their investigation to an on-the-spot inquiry—for example, immediate exposure of the luggage to a trained narcotics detection dog—or transport the property to another location.  Given the fact that seizures of property can vary in intrusiveness, some brief detentions of personal effects may be so minimally intrusive of Fourth Amendment interests that strong countervailing governmental interests will justify a seizure based only on specific articulable facts that the property contains contraband or evidence of a crime.

In sum, we conclude that, when an officer’s observations lead him reasonably to believe that a traveler is carrying luggage that contains narcotics, the principles of Terry and its progeny would permit the officer to detain the luggage briefly to investigate the circumstances that aroused his suspicion, if the investigative detention is properly limited in scope.

The purpose for which respondent’s luggage was seized, of course, was to arrange its exposure to a narcotics detection dog.  Obviously, if this investigative procedure is itself a search requiring probable cause, the initial seizure of respondent’s luggage for the purpose of subjecting it to the sniff test—no matter how brief—could not be justified on less than probable cause.

The Fourth Amendment “protects people from unreasonable government intrusions into their legitimate expectations of privacy.”  We have affirmed that a person possesses a privacy interest in the contents of personal luggage that is protected by the Fourth Amendment.  A “canine sniff” by a well-trained narcotics detection dog, however, does not require opening the luggage.  It does not expose noncontraband items that otherwise would remain hidden from public view, as does, for example, an officer’s rummaging through the contents of the luggage.  Thus, the manner in which information is obtained through this investigative technique is much less intrusive than a typical search.  Moreover, the sniff discloses only the presence or absence of narcotics, a contraband item.  Thus, despite the fact that the sniff tells the authorities something about the contents of the luggage, the information obtained is limited.  This limited disclosure also ensures that the owner of the property is not subjected to the embarrassment and inconvenience entailed in less discriminate and more intrusive investigative methods.

In these respects, the canine sniff is sui generis.  We are aware of no other investigative procedure that is so limited both in the manner in which the information is obtained and in the content of the information revealed by the procedure.  Therefore, we conclude that the particular course of investigation that the agents intended to pursue here—exposure of respondent’s luggage, which was located in a public place, to a trained canine—did not constitute a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

III.  There is no doubt that the agents made a “seizure” of Place’s luggage for purposes of the Fourth Amendment when, following his refusal to consent to a search, the agent told Place that he was going to take the luggage to a federal judge to secure issuance of a warrant.  As we observed in Terry, “the manner in which the seizure . . . was conducted is, of course, as vital a part of the inquiry as whether it was warranted at all.”  We therefore examine whether the agents’ conduct in this case was such as to place the seizure within the general rule requiring probable cause for a seizure or within Terry’s exception to that rule.

At the outset, we must reject the Government’s suggestion that the point at which probable cause for seizure of luggage from the person’s presence becomes necessary is more distant than in the case of a Terry stop of the person himself.  The premise of the Government’s argument is that seizures of property are generally less intrusive than seizures of the person.  While true in some circumstances, that premise is faulty on the facts we address in this case.  The precise type of detention we confront here is seizure of personal luggage from the immediate possession of the suspect for the purpose of arranging exposure to a narcotics detection dog.  Particularly in the case of detention of luggage within the traveler’s immediate possession, the police conduct intrudes on both the suspect’s possessory interest in his luggage as well as his liberty interest in proceeding with his itinerary.  The person whose luggage is detained is technically still free to continue his travels or carry out other personal activities pending release of the luggage.  Moreover, he is not subjected to the coercive atmosphere of a custodial confinement or to the public indignity of being personally detained.  Nevertheless, such a seizure can effectively restrain the person, since he is subjected to the possible disruption of his travel plans in order to remain with his luggage or to arrange for its return.  Therefore, when the police seize luggage from the suspect’s custody, we think the limitations applicable to investigative detentions of the person should define the permissible scope of an investigative detention of the person’s luggage on less than probable cause.  Under this standard, it is clear that the police conduct here exceeded the permissible limits of a Terry-type investigative stop.

The length of the detention of respondent’s luggage alone precludes the conclusion that the seizure was reasonable in the absence of probable cause.  Although we have recognized the reasonableness of seizures longer than the momentary ones involved in Terry, Adams, and Brignoni-Ponce, the brevity of the invasion of the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests is an important factor in determining whether the seizure is so minimally intrusive as to be justifiable on reasonable suspicion.  Moreover, in assessing the effect of the length of the detention, we take into account whether the police diligently pursue their investigation.  We note that here the New York agents knew the time of Place’s scheduled arrival at La Guardia, had ample time to arrange for their additional investigation at that location, and thereby could have minimized the intrusion on respondent’s Fourth Amendment interests.  Thus, although we decline to adopt any outside time limitation for a permissible Terry stop, we have never approved a seizure of the person for the prolonged 90-minute period involved here and cannot do so on the facts presented by this case.

Although the 90-minute detention of respondent’s luggage is sufficient to render the seizure unreasonable, the violation was exacerbated by the failure of the agents to accurately inform respondent of the place to which they were transporting his luggage, of the length of time he might be dispossessed, and of what arrangements would be made for return of the luggage if the investigation dispelled the suspicion.  In short, we hold that the detention of respondent’s luggage in this case went beyond the narrow authority possessed by police to detain briefly luggage reasonably suspected to contain narcotics.

We conclude that, under all of the circumstances of this case, the seizure of respondent’s luggage was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Consequently, the evidence obtained from the subsequent search of his luggage was inadmissible, and Place’s conviction must be reversed. The judgment of the Court of Appeals, accordingly, is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

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