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Florida v. Bostick


The Bostick case was significant for what it authorized: police dragnets of buses and bus passengers and searches that are unsupported by suspicion.

Terrance Bostick was on a bus headed from Miami, Florida, to Atlanta, Georgia, when the bus stopped for a layover in Fort Lauderdale. Two police officers wearing casual clothes and jackets clearly marked "raid" boarded the bus and began to eye the passengers. The officers picked out Terrance Bostick, a black man, for questioning. Standing between Bostick and the door with their pistols and badges visible, the officers told Bostick that they were narcotics agents looking for illegal drugs. Upon searching Bostick's luggage, the officers found cocaine and arrested Bostick.

Bostick was charged with trafficking in cocaine. Before trial, Bostick moved the court to exclude the cocaine evidence, arguing that the search was conducted in violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court refused to suppress the evidence, and Bostick pleaded guilty but preserved his right to appeal the court's decision on the suppression motion. The Florida District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's ruling, but it considered the question important enough to certify to the Florida Supreme Court, which reversed the ruling. According to Florida's high court, "an impermissible seizure result[s] when police mount a drug search on buses during scheduled stops and question boarded passengers without articulable reason for doing so, thereby obtaining consent to search the passengers' luggage." The state of Florida petitioned for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the High Court agreed to hear the case.

In a 6-3 decision, the High Court held that the search in the case was not per se unreasonable. In an opinion written by Justice O'Connor, the majority initially noted two important facts about the case: first, although Bostick disputed the finding, the trial court found that the police officers gave Bostick the right to refuse consent and that the officers never threatened Bostick with their guns. The Court then explained that its reason for taking the case was to see if Florida's high court had created a rule that was inconsistent with the Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

The sole issue in Bostick's case was whether a police encounter on a bus, such as the one that Bostick experienced, constitutes a seizure by the police under the Fourth Amendment. If such a police encounter does not constitute a seizure, then the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure do not apply. All parties in the case agreed that if the encounter was found to be a seizure, it was an illegal seizure, unsupported as it was by any reasonable suspicion that Bostick had done anything wrong. In such a ruling the cocaine evidence would have to be thrown out of court, effectively ending the state's prosecution of Bostick.

The state of Florida argued that the encounter did not constitute a seizure, and it compared the case to prior cases in which the Court had held that similar police questioning in an airport did not constitute a seizure. Bostick argued that his case was different because the encounter took place in the cramped confines of a bus. Bostick maintained that his exit route was cut off by the armed officers, and he claimed that the intimidating nature of the confrontation created an atmosphere in which he was effectively seized by the police.

The Court rejected Bostick's arguments. The Court cited some of its earlier cases for the proposition that simple police questioning does not constitute a seizure. That rule is in place because the alternative--preventing police officers from even talking to people without first developing a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime--would be an unnecessary burden on law enforcement. Quoting California v. Hodari D. (1991), the Court recited the test for determining whether a police encounter constitutes a seizure: if the person reasonably feels free "to disregard the police and go about his business," the encounter is not a seizure.

In Bostick's case, however, the Florida Supreme Court's emphasis on whether Bostick was free to leave was error. Because Bostick was on a bus, he probably had no desire to leave, so "the degree to which a reasonable person would feel that he or she could leave is not an accurate measure of the coercive effect of the encounter." The majority acknowledged that Bostick's movements were in fact confined, but "this was the natural result of his decision to take the bus; it says nothing about whether or not the police conduct at issue was coercive."

The majority declared this case was similar to that of Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Delgado (1984). In that case, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents, looking for illegal aliens, visited factories at random and questioned employees without reasonable suspicion to believe that any of the employees were illegal aliens. The Supreme Court ruled that the practice was not unconstitutional because there was no seizure of employees by the INS agents. Despite the fact that the factory employees were not free to leave the factory, the Court believed that the agents' conduct gave employees "no reason to believe that they would be detained if they gave truthful answers . . . or if they simply refused to answer."

The majority, however, refused to determine whether the agents in Bostick's case had in fact seized Bostick. That was a factual determination that had not been decided by the Florida courts under the proper standard. The proper standard for determining whether Bostick was seized, the Court pronounced, was the totality of the circumstances. In other words, the courts would have to look at all the factors involved in the encounter from the standpoint of a reasonable person to determine whether Bostick was in fact seized. The majority made it a point, though, to specifically reject Bostick's claim that he must have been seized because no reasonable person would willingly give police officers an opportunity to look through a container that contains illegal drugs. This argument was futile because when judges and juries determine what a reasonable person would feel, they must made that determination from the perspective of an innocent person, not a guilty person. The question remaining for the Florida courts, said the majority, was whether Bostick actually consented to the search of his luggage.

Justice O'Connor spent the rest of the opinion defending the majority's decision against a scathing dissent by Justice Marshall. The dissent claimed that the opinion authorized police to intimidate passengers into "voluntary" cooperation. The opinion authorized no such thing, said O'Connor, noting that the question on remand to Florida's courts was whether Bostick in fact gave the officers consent to search his luggage. The dissent also claimed that the majority opinion decreased constitutional protection for persons on buses, but the opinion merely gave police the same rights that they have on the streets and in airports and trains. O'Connor observed that the dissent objected to the idea of random police questioning, but, she noted, the Court had endorsed the idea in several prior cases.

Striking a conciliatory tone, O'Connor closed the majority opinion by agreeing with the dissent that the Court does not have the power to "suspend constitutional guarantees" as the country fights a "war on drugs." The holding, however, suspended no constitutional guarantees. According to the majority, its holding was in line with precedent and merely corrected the Florida Supreme Court's conclusion that such police sweeps as the one conducted in Bostick's case were not per se unconstitutional.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994Florida v. Bostick - Significance, Minority Opinion, Impact, Random Bus And Train Searches, Further Readings