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United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980)


Respondent, prior to trial in Federal District Court on a charge of possessing heroin with intent to distribute it, moved to suppress the introduction in evidence of the heroin on the ground that it had been acquired through an unconstitutional search and seizure by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. At the hearing on the motion, it was established that, when respondent arrived at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a flight from Los Angeles, two DEA agents, observing that her conduct appeared to be characteristic of persons unlawfully carrying narcotics, approached her as she was walking through the concourse, identified themselves as federal agents, and asked to see her identification and airline ticket. After respondent produced her driver’s license, which was in her name, and her ticket, which was issued in another name, the agents questioned her briefly as to the discrepancy and as to how long she had been in California. After returning the ticket and driver’s license to her, one of the agents asked respondent if she would accompany him to the airport DEA office for further questions, and respondent did so. At the office, the agent asked respondent if she would allow a search of her person and handbag and told her that she had the right to decline the search if she desired. She responded: “Go ahead,” and handed her purse to the agent. A female police officer, who arrived to conduct the search of respondent’s person, also asked respondent if she consented to the search, and respondent replied that she did. When the policewoman explained that respondent would have to remove her clothing, respondent stated that she had a plane to catch, and was assured that, if she was carrying no narcotics, there would be no problem. Respondent began to disrobe without further comment, and took from her undergarments two packages, one of which appeared to contain heroin, and handed them to the policewoman. Respondent was then arrested for possessing heroin. The District Court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the agents’ conduct in initially approaching the respondent and asking to see her ticket and identification was a permissible investigative stop, based on facts justifying a suspicion of criminal activity, that respondent had accompanied the agents to the DEA office voluntarily, and that respondent voluntarily consented to the 

Page 446 U. S. 545

search in the DEA office. Respondent was convicted after trial, but the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that respondent had not validly consented to the search.

Held: The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded. Pp.  446 U. S. 550-560;  446 U. S. 560-566.

596 F.2d 706, reversed and remanded.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to parts I, II-B, II-C, and III, concluding:

1. Respondent’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when she went with the agents from the concourse to the DEA office. Whether her consent to accompany the agents was in fact voluntary or was the product of duress or coercion is to be determined by the totality of all the circumstances. Under this test, the evidence — including evidence that respondent was not told that she had to go to the office, but was simply asked if she would accompany the officers, and that there were neither threats nor any show of force — was plainly adequate to support the District Court’s finding that respondent voluntarily consented to accompany the officers. The facts that the respondent was 22 years old, had not been graduated from high school, and was a Negro accosted by white officers, while not irrelevant, were not decisive.  Cf. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U. S. 218. Pp.  446 U. S. 557-558.

2. The evidence also clearly supported the District Court’s view that respondent’s consent to the search of her person at the DEA office was freely and voluntarily given. She was plainly capable of a knowing consent, and she was twice expressly told by the officers that she was free to withhold consent, and only thereafter explicitly consented to the search. The trial court was entitled to view her statement, made when she was told that the search would require the removal of her clothing, that “she had a plane to catch” as simply an expression of concern that the search be conducted quickly, not as indicating resistance to the search. Pp. 446 U. S. 558-559.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, joined by MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concluded in Part II-A, that no “seizure” of respondent, requiring objective justification, occurred when the agents approached her on the concourse and asked questions of her. A person has been “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave, and as long as the person to whom questions are put remains free to disregard the questions and walk away, there has been no intrusion upon that person’s liberty or privacy as would require some particularized and objective justification. Nothing in the record suggests that respondent had any objective reason to believe that 

Page 446 U. S. 546

she was not free to end the conversation in the concourse and proceed on her way. Pp.  446 U. S. 551-557.

MR. JUSTICE POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that the question whether the DEA agents “seized” respondent within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment should not be reached, because neither of the courts below considered the question; and that, assuming that the stop did constitute a seizure, the federal agents, in light of all the circumstances, had reasonable suspicion that respondent was engaging in criminal activity and, therefore, did not violate the Fourth Amendment by stopping her for routine questioning. Pp.  446 U. S. 560-566.

STEWART, J., announced the Court’s judgment and delivered an opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-B, II-C, and III, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST , JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part II-A, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p.  446 U. S. 560. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p.  446 U. S. 566.