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Florida v. Royer


The Royer decision approved of a police stop but disapproved of the detention that followed, reinforcing the concept that there are limits to the things that police officers can do when they stop a person based on a level of belief that does not rise to the level of probable cause.

Mark Royer was in the Miami International Airport on 3 January 1978, preparing to take a flight to New York City. To plain clothes detectives of the Dade County, Florida, Public Safety Department, Royer's appearance, luggage, and actions fit the profile of a drug courier. Specifically, Royer was young, casually dressed, seemed pale and nervous, looked around at other people, paid for his ticket with a large number of bills, failed to complete his luggage identification tag, and used luggage that appeared to be heavy.

The detectives approached Royer and asked if he had a "`moment'" to speak with them. Royer responded "`Yes.'" The detectives asked for Royer's driver's license and his airline ticket, and Royer, without giving his oral consent, handed them over. The airline ticket, like Royer's luggage tickets, bore the name "Holt." When he was questioned about the discrepancy, Royer responded that a friend had made the reservation for him. Royer became nervous, and the detectives informed him that they were investigating illegal drug violations and that they had reason to believe that Royer was transporting illegal drugs.

The detectives retained possession of Royer's airline ticket and identification and asked Royer to accompany them to a small room adjacent to the concourse. Saying nothing, Royer went with the detectives. One of the detectives retrieved Royer's luggage and brought it to the room without asking for Royer's consent. The detectives asked Royer if they could open the suitcases and search inside, and Royer, again without verbally responding, handed the detectives a key. Without asking for Royer's consent, a detective tried the key on one of the suitcases and opened it and found marijuana. The second suitcase, fastened by a combination lock and opened with a screwdriver, yielded more marijuana. While he had not given his oral consent, Royer also had not verbally objected to the uncovering of 65 pounds of marijuana in his possession. Later, Royer would testify that he did not object because "`[t]hey were police officers'" and he "`thought [he] had to.'"

Royer was charged with felony possession of marijuana in Florida state court. At trial, he moved the court to suppress, or exclude, the marijuana evidence because it was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that Royer had consented to the search. Royer changed his not guilty plea to a no contest plea, reserving the right to appeal the court's ruling on the suppression motion. On appeal, the district court of appeal first affirmed, and then, after a hearing, reversed the decision. According to the appeals court, because Royer had been confined involuntarily without probable cause and because the detention had gone beyond the boundaries established by the Supreme Court's decision in Terry v. Ohio for such detentions, and any consent given by Royer was invalid. The encounter was like an arrest, explained the appeals court, and Royer was justified in his belief that he was not free to leave. Such a detention can only be justified by the presence of probable cause to believe that Royer was guilty of a crime, and the detectives did not have enough evidence to support that.

The state of Florida appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted to affirm the appeals court's ruling by a narrow 5-4 margin. Justice White, writing for the plurality, began the opinion by observing the general rules that guided the case. Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Court's prior case law, a police officer had to have probable cause to believe that a person had committed a crime before the officer could seize the person. One exception to this rule, under the Court's decision in Terry v. Ohio, was the temporary detention of a criminal suspect. If a police officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a person was guilty of a crime or was about to commit a crime, the officer could stop the person and briefly detain the person for questioning and perform a limited pat-down search for weapons.

The plurality listed six "observations" about Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that guided the case. "[I]f the events in this case amounted to no more than a permissible police encounter in a public place or a justifiable Terry-type detention," the Court surmised, "Royer's consent, if voluntary, would have been effective to legalize the search of his two suitcases." The appeals court had concluded that Royer's consent was tainted by the illegality of the detention, and so the question was "whether the record warrant[ed] that conclusion."

The state of Florida had argued that Royer was not detained. In the state's view, the entire encounter was consensual, so there was no detention of Royer. Even if the encounter was not consensual, the state maintained, the police had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that Royer was transporting drugs, and this belief justified the detention. Furthermore, claimed the state, the police had probable cause to arrest Royer, and so he was not being illegally held. To the High Court, the argument that the encounter was consensual was "untenable" because the detectives used "a show of authority" that would have made a reasonable person feel detained.

The Court gave more attention to the argument that the police officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Royer. They conceded that the officers had reasonable suspicion, but believed that "at the time Royer produced the key to his suitcase, the detention to which he was then subjected was a more serious intrusion on his personal liberty than is allowable on mere suspicion of criminal activity." What may have been a permissible stop at first "escalated into an investigatory procedure in a police interrogation room, where the police, unsatisfied with previous explanations, sought to confirm their suspicions . . . [a]s a practical matter, Royer was under arrest." Moreover, the actions of the detectives were too intrusive to qualify as a limited Terry stop. The detectives did not return Royer's driver's license and ticket, they removed him from the immediate area, and the detectives may have been able to "investigate the contents of Royer's bags in a more expeditious way." The plurality mentioned the use of trained dogs as a less intrusive alternative to the kind of methods employed by the detectives.

To justify Royer's arrest, the police had to have probable cause, a standard of belief that is stronger than reasonable suspicion and requires more supporting information. The state of Florida argued that the police had enough information to support probable cause, but the Court disagreed. The Court could not agree that "every nervous young man paying cash for a ticket to New York City under an assumed name and carrying two heavy bags may be arrested and held to answer for a serious felony charge." Ultimately, the Court affirmed the appeals court's decision and the prosecution of Royer was over.

Justice Powell wrote a concurring opinion to emphasize that despite the Court's holding, "the public has a compelling interest in identifying by all lawful means those who traffic in illicit drugs for personal profit." However, in Royer's case, the actions of the detectives went beyond lawful means. Powell noted that Royer "found himself in a small, windowless room--described as a "`large closet'"--alone with two officers who, without his consent, already had obtained possession of his checked baggage." Royer clearly was not free to leave and, in Powell's opinion, Royer's surrender of the luggage key could not be seen as consensual.

Justice Brennan concurred in the result of the case, but he felt that the plurality had decided more issues than was necessary. The plurality did not have to hold that the stop of Royer was legal; it could have merely affirmed the ruling of the appeals court on the basis that the stop exceeded the bounds of such a stop delineated in Terry. Brennan believed that the stop itself was illegal because the detectives did not have enough information to support a reasonable suspicion that Royer was committing a crime. The observations made by the detectives (Royer was young, nervous, pale, paid with cash, looked around at other people, and used heavy luggage) were "perfectly consistent with innocent behavior and [could not] possibly give rise to any inference supporting a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity." Brennan admitted that "traffic in illicit drugs is a matter of pressing national concern," but he warned that the nation's "zeal for effective law enforcement" should not obscure "the peril to our free society that lies in this Court's disregard of the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment."

Chief Justice Burger and Justices Blackmun, Rehnquist, and O'Connor dissented. In his own dissenting opinion, Justice Blackmun expressed his view that, in light of the threats posed by illegal drug traffic, the actions of the police officers were reasonable and therefore not violative of the Fourth Amendment. Justice Rehnquist, joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justice O'Connor, offered a more pointed dissent. "The plurality's meandering opinion," Rehnquist wrote, "contains in it a little something for everyone." Although much of its opinion indicated that it was not indifferent to the dangers of drug trafficking, the plurality managed to affirm the reversal of conviction, all of which reminded Rehnquist of an old nursery rhyme: "`The King of France/With forty thousand men/Marched up the hill/And then marched back again.'" Rehnquist compared the plurality's "mind-set" to that of shuffleboard officials, more "concerned with which particular square the disc has landed on" than administering criminal justice.

Rehnquist mocked the plurality's assessment of the detectives' conduct. The plurality had mentioned that Royer was kept in a small room with two chairs; this left Rehnquist wondering whether the encounter would have been constitutional if the detectives had searched the luggage in the busy concourse, or "[i]f the room had been large and spacious, rather than small, if it had possessed three chairs rather than two." Rehnquist compared the plurality's vague opinion to an Impressionist painting, and insisted that the Court's holding was foreclosed by the Court's decision in United States v. Mendenhall. In that case, the Court had upheld the stop, detention, and strip search of a woman who was suspected of possessing drugs. The search of the woman in Mendenhall had been upheld on the basis that the woman had consented to the search. Rehnquist believed that Royer, who went on to gain a college degree in communications, also had consented, and that the detectives had done nothing to warrant invalidation of that consent.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Florida v. Royer - Significance, Impact