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United States v. Place


The decision gave latitude to the government in situations involving the search and seizure of baggage.

On Friday, 17 August 1979, Raymond J. Place was in the Miami International Airport at the National Airlines ticket counter, preparing to board a flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York City. As four Dade County detectives surveilled the National Airlines ticket counter, Place waited in line and scanned the airport lobby, looking closely at every person in his immediate area. This aroused the suspicion of one of the detectives, Robertson McGavock, who was in line in front of Place. Place watched McGavock as McGavock left the line to speak with another detective, John Facchiano. Place continued to watch McGavock as he moved about the area, but Place looked away whenever McGavock looked at him.

As Place left for the concourse for his flight, McGavock checked the tags on Place's luggage and noticed that they were headed for LaGuardia Airport. At this point, in the subsequent words of the trial court, "a curious ballet" began. McGavock followed Place to the concourse, but Place changed directions en route and headed in the direction from which he had come. McGavock continued on and Place, after circling around the lobby area, went in the restroom. Less than a minute later, Place emerged from the restroom and proceeded to pass through the security gates.

Before Place boarded the plane, Facchiano and McGavock approached Place and displayed their credentials. A brief conversation ensued in which Place asked the detectives if anything was wrong and the detectives responded that they had "a big problem with contraband going out of here in the airport." At Facchiano's request, Place produced his airline ticket and his driver's license. The detectives explained that they were looking specifically for narcotics, and Place responded that he did not "use any stuff like that." The detectives asked Place if they could search inside his suitcase and Place gave his consent, whereupon the detectives decided to let Place go. As he walked toward his plane, Place turned back to the detectives and said "Hey, I knew you guys were cops when I saw you down in the lobby." The detectives asked how many cops he had seen; Place said that he had seen four or five, and then he boarded the plane.

Their curiosity renewed, the detectives did some more checking on Place. They found that there were two different addresses on Place's luggage tags and that, according to police, neither of the addresses existed. Based on Place's nervousness and constant scanning, the discrepancies in the luggage tags, and the conversation he and Facchiano had with Place, McGavock decided to call Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials in New York to alert them about Place.

The "ballet" that had begun in Miami resumed in New York City. Two DEA agents observed Place meet another male after exiting the plane and nervously look about as they walked and talked. Place waited outside the baggage claim area until his luggage appeared, watching people in the area. When his bags appeared, Place took hold of them and then, after waiting a few more minutes, he left the baggage claim area and began to walk down a corridor. At one point, Place stopped in his tracks and turned around to stare at the DEA agent who was tailing him. The agent kept walking past Place, but when Place stopped at a pay phone, both agents made contact with him.

Again Place informed the police that he was aware of their presence. The detectives told Place that, based on their information from the Miami detectives, they believed he was carrying narcotics. Place said that he had already been searched in Miami, and that the search was embarrassing. The detectives told Place that they had information to the contrary and asked Place if they could search his luggage. Place refused, and the detectives said they would keep his luggage until Monday morning, when they would see a federal judge about obtaining a search warrant to search the luggage. Place could either follow the agents to the magistrate or leave.

After some "hysterics" by Place, the agents took the bags to John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK). At JFK, "Honey," a drug-sniffing dog, lighted on the smaller of Place's two bags. On Monday, the agents obtained a search warrant to search the smaller bag. Inside the bag, the DEA agents found 1,125 grams of cocaine. Place was arrested, indicted, and charged in New York with a federal offense of possession of cocaine with an intent to distribute.

Before trial, Place moved the district court to exclude, or "suppress," the cocaine evidence from trial, arguing that it was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. According to Place, the Miami detectives violated the Fourth Amendment when they questioned him in the Miami International Airport, and the subsequent search by the agents in New York City was a continuation of the constitutional violation. The district court rejected Place's argument and deemed the cocaine evidence admissible, and Place pleaded guilty. However, he reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court's decision. According to the appeals court, the stopping of Place and seizure of Place's luggage was not unconstitutional. However, the lengthy detention of Place's bags did constitute a violation of Place's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the federal government's appeal and, in a subtly divided unanimous opinion, the High Court affirmed the appeals court's ruling.

In an opinion written by Justice O'Connor, the Court began its analysis by trotting through the jurisprudential rules created by the Court under the Fourth Amendment. Generally, a police officer must have obtained a search warrant from a judge or magistrate before conducting a search of a person or place. A judge or magistrate may issue a search warrant if the police officer seeking the warrant produces enough information to show that probable cause exists. In a criminal case, probable cause is a reasonable belief that the person targeted in the warrant has committed a crime. There are many exceptions to this general rule, though, and one is known as the "investigative stop." Under this exception to the warrant requirement, created by the Court in Terry v. Ohio (1968) a police officer, acting on mere reasonable suspicion of criminal activity--a level of belief that is less than probable cause--may stop a person and ask the person questions. In addition, the officer may perform a limited pat-down search for weapons to ensure his or her own safety. Police may seize property belonging to a person, provided that they have developed probable cause to believe the property is contraband or contains evidence of a crime, and also provided that "the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present."

In Place's case, the police officers had something less than probable cause to believe that Place had committed, or was committing, a crime. The level of belief on the part of the law enforcement personnel was more like reasonable suspicion. The government acknowledged this and asked the Court to hold, for the first time, that the warrantless seizure and detention of a person's luggage based on mere reasonable suspicion does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Six of the nine justices agreed to this expansion of law enforcement powers. The Court concluded that the Fourth Amendment did not prohibit the detention of a person's luggage, "[g]iven the enforcement problems associated with the detection of narcotics trafficking and the minimal intrusion that a properly limited detention would entail."

In determining whether a particular exception to the warrant requirement makes a search unreasonable, the Court recognized in Terry that it must conduct a balancing test. Specifically, the Court 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." Where a warrantless seizure is based on less than probable cause, the Court declared, the law enforcement interests will win out if "the nature and extent of the detention are minimally intrusive of the individual's Fourth Amendment interests."

On the facts in Place's case, the Court continued, the dog sniffing of the luggage by Honey did not even constitute a search in Place's case. "We know of no other investigative procedure that is so limited in both the manner in which the information is obtained and in the content of the information revealed by the procedure." However, the detention of Place's luggage was an entirely different matter. Although it was legal for the DEA agents to seize and detain Place's luggage, "the police conduct here exceeded the permissible limits of a Terry-type investigative stop."

The very length of the detention of Place's luggage, the Court explained, "precludes the conclusion that the seizure was reasonable in the absence of probable cause." It made no difference in the analysis that the seizure was of Place's property, and not Place's person. When a person has luggage seized, that person's itinerary is disrupted and the person is deprived of his or her possessory interest in his luggage. "[S]uch 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." The Court declined to put any specific time limitation on so-called "Terry stops," but it had never "approved a seizure of the person for the prolonged 90-minute period involved here" and it could not do so on the facts in Place's case. The police, the Court added, could have been more diligent in their investigation; this comment seemed to suggest that the DEA agents in New York should have stopped Place as he came off the plane and questioned him further to develop probable cause for the lengthy detention of Place's luggage. Ultimately, the Court held in favor of the government on the issue of warrantless searches and seizures based only on reasonable suspicion. However, on the particular case before it, the Court ruled that the seizure of Place's luggage "went beyond the narrow authority possessed by police to detain briefly luggage reasonably suspected to contain narcotics."

Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun concurred only in the judgment in favor of Place; all three disagreed with the Court's holding on the issue of warrantless seizures of luggage based only on reasonable suspicion. In a long concurring opinion joined by Justice Marshall, Justice Brennan maintained that the Court should have held merely that the officers had the reasonable suspicion necessary to conduct a Terry stop, and that the principles set forth in the Terry case should govern seizures of property. As it turned out, the Court saw fit to reach "issues unnecessary to the judgment," and Brennan did not agree with the Court's analysis of the issues. The decision, Brennan insisted, represented "a radical departure from settled Fourth Amendment principles." According to Brennan and Marshall, nothing in the Terry case or any of its progeny could support the expansion of police search powers to allow the detention of a person's luggage on mere reasonable suspicion. "[E]ven when the Court finds that an individual's Fourth Amendment rights have been violated," Brennan complained, "it cannot resist the temptation to weaken the protections the Amendment affords."

Justice Blackmun wrote a separate concurring opinion, which Justice Marshall also joined. Blackmun could not fault the Court for wanting to make guidelines on the seizure of luggage, but he was concerned with "an emerging tendency on the part of the Court to convert the Terry decision into a general statement that the Fourth Amendment requires only that any seizure be reasonable." Blackmun and Marshall also objected to the Court's approval of dog-sniffs, an issue that was not raised by the parties. A decision on that issue, the two justices insisted, should have had "a full airing . . . in a proper case."

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