United States v. Mendenhall


No. 78-1821 Argued: February 19, 1980 --- Decided: May 27, 1980
MR. JUSTICE STEWART announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST joined. [*]

The respondent was brought to trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on a [p547] charge of possessing heroin with intent to distribute it. She moved to suppress the introduction at trial of the heroin as evidence against her on the ground that it had been acquired from her through an unconstitutional search and seizure by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The District Court denied the respondent's motion, and she was convicted after a trial upon stipulated facts. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding the search of the respondent's person to have been unlawful. We granted certiorari to consider whether any right of the respondent guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment was violated in the circumstances presented by this case. 444 U.S. 822.


At the hearing in the trial court on the respondent's motion to suppress, it was established how the heroin she was charged with possessing had been obtained from her. The respondent arrived at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a commercial airline flight from Los Angeles early in the morning on February 10, 1976. As she disembarked from the airplane, she was observed by two agents of the DEA, who were present at the airport for the purpose of detecting unlawful traffic in narcotics. After observing the respondent's conduct, which appeared to the agents to be characteristic of persons unlawfully carrying narcotics, [n1] the agents approached her as she was walking through the concourse, identified themselves as federal [p548] agents, and asked to see her identification and airline ticket. The respondent produced her driver's license, which was in the name of Sylvia Mendenhall, and, in answer to a question of one of the agents, stated that she resided at the address appearing on the license. The airline ticket was issued in the name of "Annette Ford." When asked why the ticket bore a name different from her own, the respondent stated that she "just felt like using that name." In response to a further question, the respondent indicated that she had been in California only two days. Agent Anderson then specifically identified himself as a federal narcotics agent and, according to his testimony, the respondent "became quite shaken, extremely nervous. She had a hard time speaking."

After returning the airline ticket and driver's license to her, Agent Anderson asked the respondent if she would accompany him to the airport DEA office for further questions. She did so, although the record does not indicate a verbal response to the request. The office, which was located up one flight of stairs about 50 feet from where the respondent had first been approached, consisted of a reception area adjoined by three other rooms. At the office, the agent asked the 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." She then handed Agent Anderson her purse, which contained a receipt for an airline ticket that had been issued to "F. Bush" three days earlier for a flight from Pittsburgh through Chicago to Los Angeles. The agent asked whether this was the ticket that she had used for her flight to California, and the respondent stated that it was.

A female police officer then arrived to conduct the search of the respondent's person. She asked the agents if the respondent had consented to be searched. The agents said that she had, and the respondent followed the policewoman into a private room. There the policewoman again asked the respondent if she consented to the search, and the respondent [p549] replied that she did. The policewoman explained that the search would require that the respondent remove her clothing. The respondent stated that she had a plane to catch, and was assured by the policewoman that, if she were carrying no narcotics, there would be no problem. The respondent then began to disrobe without further comment. As the respondent removed her clothing, she took from her undergarments two small packages, one of which appeared to contain heroin, and handed both to the policewoman. The agents then arrested the respondent for possessing heroin.

It was on the basis of this evidence that the District Court denied the respondent's motion to suppress. The court concluded that the agents' conduct in initially approaching the respondent and asking to see her ticket and identification was a permissible investigative stop under the standards of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, and United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, finding that this conduct was based on specific and articulable facts that justified a suspicion of criminal activity. The court also found that the respondent had not been placed under arrest or otherwise detained when she was asked to accompany the agents to the DEA office, but had accompanied the agents "‘voluntarily in a spirit of apparent cooperation.'" It was the court's view that no arrest occurred until after the heroin had been found. Finally, the trial court found that the respondent "gave her consent to the search [in the DEA office] and . . . such consent was freely and voluntarily given."

The Court of Appeals reversed the respondent's subsequent conviction, stating only that "the court concludes that this case is indistinguishable from United States v McCaleb," 552 F.2d 717 (CA6 1977). [n2] In McCaleb, the Court of Appeals had suppressed heroin seized by DEA agents at the Detroit Airport in circumstances substantially similar to those in the [p550] present case. [n3] The Court of Appeals there disapproved the Government's reliance on the so-called "drug courier profile," and held that the gents could not reasonably have suspected criminal activity in that case, for the reason that "the activities of the [persons] observed by DEA agents, were consistent with innocent behavior," id. at 720. The Court of Appeals further concluded in McCaleb that, even if the initial approach had been permissible, asking the suspects to accompany the agents to a private room for further questioning constituted an arrest requiring probable cause. Finally, the court in McCaleb held that the consent to the search in that case had not been voluntarily given, principally because it was the fruit of what the court believed to have been an unconstitutional detention.

On rehearing en banc of the present case, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its original decision, stating simply that the respondent had not validly consented to the search "within the meaning of [McCaleb]." 596 F.2d 706, 707.


The Fourth Amendment provides that

the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. . . .

There is no question in this case that the respondent possessed this constitutional right of personal security as she walked through the Detroit Airport, for "the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places," Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351. Here the Government concedes that its agents had neither a warrant nor probable cause to believe that the respondent was carrying narcotics when [p551] the agents conducted a search of the respondent's person. It is the Government's position, however, that the search was conducted pursuant to the respondent's consent, [n4] and thus was excepted from the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause. See Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218. Evidently, the Court of Appeals concluded that the respondent's apparent consent to the search was in fact not voluntarily given, and was, in any event, the product of earlier official conduct violative of the Fourth Amendment. We must first consider, therefore, whether such conduct occurred, either on the concourse or in the DEA office at the airport.


The Fourth Amendment's requirement that searches and seizures be founded upon an objective justification, governs all seizures of the person,

including seizures that involve only a brief detention short of traditional arrest. Davis v. Mississippi, 394 U.S. 721 (1969); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16-19 (1968).

United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, supra, at 878. [n5] Accordingly, if the respondent was "seized" when the DEA [p552] agents approached her on the concourse and asked questions of her, the agents' conduct in doing so was constitutional only if they reasonably suspected the respondent of wrongdoing. But

[o]bviously, not all personal intercourse between policemen and citizens involves "seizures" of persons. Only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a "seizure" has occurred.

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. at 19, n.16.

The distinction between an intrusion amounting to a "seizure" of the person and an encounter that intrudes upon no constitutionally protected interest is illustrated by the facts of Terry v. Ohio, which the Court recounted as follows:

Officer McFadden approached the three men, identified himself as a police officer, and asked for their names. . . . When the men "mumbled something" in response to his inquiries, Officer McFadden grabbed petitioner Terry, spun him around so that they were facing the other two, with Terry between McFadden and the others, and patted down the outside of his clothing.

Id. at 6-7. Obviously the officer "seized" Terry and subjected him to a "search" when he took hold of him, spun him around, and patted down the outer surfaces of his clothing, id. at 19. What was not determined in that case, however, was that a seizure had taken place before the officer physically restrained Terry for purposes of searching his person [p553] for weapons. The Court "assume[d] that, up to that point, no intrusion upon constitutionally protected rights had occurred." Id. at 19, n. 16. The Court's assumption appears entirely correct in view of the fact, noted in the concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE WHITE, that " [t]here is nothing in the Constitution which prevents a policeman from addressing questions to anyone on the streets," id. at 34. Police officers enjoy "the liberty (again, possessed by every citizen) to address questions to other persons," id. at 31, 32-33 (Harlan, J., concurring), although "ordinarily, the person addressed has an equal right to ignore his interrogator and walk away." Ibid.

Similarly, the Court in Sibron v. New York, 392 U.S. 40, a case decided the same day as Terry v. Ohio, indicated that not every encounter between a police officer and a citizen is an intrusion requiring an objective justification. In that case, a police officer, before conducting what was later found to have been an unlawful search, approached Sibron in a restaurant and told him to come outside, which Sibron did. The Court had no occasion to decide whether there was a "seizure" of Sibron inside the restaurant antecedent to the seizure that accompanied the search. The record was

barren of any indication whether Sibron accompanied [the officer] outside in submission to a show of force or authority which left him no choice, or whether he went voluntarily in a spirit of apparent cooperation with the officer's investigation.

392 U.S. at 63 (emphasis added). Plainly, in the latter event, there was no seizure until the police officer in some way demonstrably curtailed Sibron's liberty.

We adhere to the view that a person is "seized" only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained. Only when such restraint is imposed is there any foundation whatever for invoking constitutional safeguards. The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is not to eliminate all contact between the police and the citizenry, but "to prevent arbitrary and oppressive interference [p554] by enforcement officials with the privacy and personal security of individuals." United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 554. 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 under the Constitution require some particularized and objective justification.

Moreover, characterizing every street encounter between a citizen and the police as a "seizure," while not enhancing any interest secured by the Fourth Amendment, would impose wholly unrealistic restrictions upon a wide variety of legitimate law enforcement practices. The Court has on other occasions referred to the acknowledged need for police questioning as a tool in the effective enforcement of the criminal laws.

Without such investigation, those who were innocent might be falsely accused, those who were guilty might wholly escape prosecution, and many crimes would go unsolved. In short, the security of all would be diminished. Haynes v. Washington, 373 U.S. 503, 515.

Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. at 225.

We conclude that 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. [n6] Examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled. See Terry v. Ohio, supra at 19, n. 16; Dunaway v. [p555] New York, 442 U.S. 200, 207, and n. 6; 3 W. LaFave, Search and Seizure 53-55 (1978). In the absence of some such evidence, otherwise inoffensive contact between a member of the public and the police cannot, as a matter of law, amount to a seizure of that person.

On the facts of this case, no "seizure" of the respondent occurred. The events took place in the public concourse. The agents wore no uniforms, and displayed no weapons. They did not summon the respondent to their presence, but instead approached her and identified themselves as federal agents. They requested, but did not demand, to see the respondent's identification and ticket. Such conduct, without more, did not amount to an intrusion upon any constitutionally protected interest. The respondent was not seized simply by reason of the fact that the agents approached her, asked her if she would show them her ticket and identification, and posed to her a few questions. Nor was it enough to establish a seizure that the person asking the questions was a law enforcement official. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. at 31, 32-33 (Harlan, J., concurring). See also ALI, Model Code of Pre-Arraignment Procedure § 110.1(1) and commentary, at 257-261 (1975). In short, nothing in the record suggests that the respondent had any objective reason to believe that she was not free to end the conversation in the concourse and proceed on her way, and for that reason, we conclude that the agents' initial approach to her was not a seizure.

Our conclusion that no seizure occurred is not affected the fact that the respondent was not expressly told by the agents that she was free to decline to cooperate with their inquiry, for the voluntariness of her responses does not depend upon her having been so informed. See Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, supra. We also reject the argument that the only inference to be drawn from the fact that the respondent acted in a manner so contrary to her self-interest is that she was compelled to answer the agents' questions. It may happen that a person makes statements to law enforcement [p556] officials that he later regrets, but the issue in such cases is not whether the statement was self-protective, but rather whether it was made voluntarily.

The Court's decision last Term in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, on which the respondent relies, is not apposite. It could not have been plainer under the circumstances there presented that Brown was forcibly detained by the officers. In that case, two police officers approached Brown in an alley, and asked him to identify himself and to explain his reason for being there. Brown "refused to identify himself and angrily asserted that the officers had no right to stop him," id. at 49. Up to this point, there was no seizure. But after continuing to protest the officers' power to interrogate him, Brown was first frisked, and then arrested for violation of a state statute making it a criminal offense for a person to refuse to give his name and address to an officer "who has lawfully stopped him and requested the information." The Court simply held in that case that, because the officers had no reason to suspect Brown of wrongdoing, there was no basis for detaining him, and therefore no permissible foundation for applying the state statute in the circumstances there presented. Id. at 52-53.

The Court's decisions involving investigatory stops of automobiles do not point in any different direction. In United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, the Court held that a roving patrol of law enforcement officers could stop motorists in the general area of an international border for brief inquiry into their residence status only if the officers reasonably suspected that the vehicle might contain aliens who were illegally in the country. Id. at 881-882. The Government did not contend in that case that the persons whose automobiles were detained were not seized. Indeed, the Government acknowledged that the occupants of a detained vehicle were required to respond to the officers' questions and, on some occasions, to produce documents evidencing their eligibility to be in the United States. Id. at 880. Moreover stopping or diverting an automobile in transit, with the attendant opportunity for [p557] a visual inspection of areas of the passenger compartment not otherwise observable, is materially more intrusive than a question put to a passing pedestrian, and the fact that the former amounts to a seizure tells very little about the constitutional status of the latter. See also Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648; United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 556-559.


Although we have concluded that the initial encounter between the DEA agents and the respondent on the concourse at the Detroit Airport did not constitute an unlawful seizure, it is still arguable that the respondent's Fourth Amendment protections were violated when she went from the concourse to the DEA office. Such a violation might in turn infect the subsequent search of the respondent's person.

The District Court specifically found that the respondent accompanied the agents to the office "‘voluntarily in a spirit of apparent cooperation,'" quoting Sibron v. New York, 392 U.S. at 63. Notwithstanding this determination by the trial court, the Court of Appeals evidently concluded that the agents' request that the respondent accompany them converted the situation into an arrest requiring probable cause in order to be found lawful. But because the trial court's finding was sustained by the record, the Court of Appeals was mistaken in substituting for that finding its view of the evidence. See Jackson v. United States, 122 U.S.App.D.C. 324, 353 F.2d 862 (1965).

The question whether the respondent's consent to accompany the agents was in fact voluntary or was the product of duress or coercion, express or implied, is to be determined by the totality of all the circumstances, Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. at 412 U.S. 227"]227, and is a matter which the Government has the burden of proving. Id. at 222, citing 227, and is a matter which the Government has the burden of proving. Id. at 222, citing Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 548. The respondent herself did not testify at the hearing. The Government's evidence showed that the respondent was not told that she [p558] had to go to the office, but was simply asked if she would accompany the officers. There were neither threats nor any show of force. The respondent had been questioned only briefly, and her ticket and identification were returned to her before she was asked to accompany the officers.

On the other hand, it is argued that the incident would reasonably have appeared coercive to the respondent, who was 22 years old and had not been graduated from high school. It is additionally suggested that the respondent, a female and a Negro, may have felt unusually threatened by the officers, who were white males. While these factors were not irrelevant, see Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, supra at 226, neither were they decisive, and the totality of the evidence in this case was plainly adequate to support the District Court's finding that the respondent voluntarily consented to accompany the officers to the DEA office.


Because the search of the respondent's person was not preceded by an impermissible seizure of her person, it cannot be contended that her apparent consent to the subsequent search was infected by an unlawful detention. There remains to be considered whether the respondent's consent to the search was for any other reason invalid. The District Court explicitly credited the officers' testimony and found that the "consent was freely and voluntarily given," citing Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, supra. There was more than enough evidence in this case to sustain that view. First, we note that the respondent, who was 22 years old and had an 11th-grade education, was plainly capable of a knowing consent. Second, it is especially significant that the respondent was twice expressly told that she was free to decline to consent to the search, and only thereafter explicitly consented to it. Although the Constitution does not require "proof of knowledge of a right to refuse as the sine qua non of an effective consent to a search," id. at 234 (footnote omitted), such knowledge [p559] was highly relevant to the determination that there had been consent. And, perhaps more important for present purposes, the fact that the officers themselves informed the respondent that she was free to withhold her consent substantially lessened the probability that their conduct could reasonably have appeared to her to be coercive.

Counsel for the respondent has argued that she did, in fact, resist the search, relying principally on the testimony that, when she was told that the search would require the removal of her clothing, she stated to the female police officer that "she had a plane to catch." But the trial court was entitled to view the statement as simply an expression of concern that the search be conducted quickly. The respondent had twice unequivocally indicated her consent to the search, and when assured by the police officer that there would be no problem if nothing were turned up by the search, she began to undress without further comment.

Counsel for the respondent has also argued that, because she was within the DEA office when she consented to the search, her consent may have resulted from the inherently coercive nature of those surroundings. But in view of the District Court's finding that the respondent's presence in the office was voluntary, the fact that she was there is little or no evidence that she was in any way coerced. And in response to the argument that the respondent would not voluntarily have consented to a search that was likely to disclose the narcotics that she carried, we repeat that the question is not whether the respondent acted in her ultimate self-interest, but whether she acted voluntarily. [n7]


We conclude that the District Court's determination that the respondent consented to the search of her person "freely [p560] and voluntarily" was sustained by the evidence and that the Court of Appeals was, therefore, in error in setting it aside. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings.

It is so ordered.

* THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, and MR. JUSTICE POWELL also join all but Part II-A of this opinion.

1. The agent testified that the respondent's behavior fit the so-called "drug courier profile" -- an informally compiled abstract of characteristics thought typical of persons carrying illicit drugs. In this case, the agents thought it relevant that (1) the respondent was arriving on a flight from Los Angeles, a city believed by the agents to be the place of origin for much of the heroin brought to Detroit; (2) the respondent was the last person to leave the plane, "appeared to be very nervous," and "completely scanned the whole area where [the agents] were standing"; (3) after leaving the plane, the respondent proceeded past the baggage area without claiming any luggage; and (4) the respondent changed airlines for her flight out of Detroit.

2. The opinion of the Court of Appeals and the opinion of the District Court are both unreported.

3. The McCaleb case, however, involved a circumstance not present here. Although the persons searched in that case were advised of their right to decline to give consent to the search of their luggage, they were also informed that, if they refused, they would be detained while the agents sought a search warrant. 552 F.2d at 719. The Court of Appeals in this case evidently considered the distinction irrelevant.

4. The Government has made several alternative arguments in this case.

5. In the District Court and the Court of Appeals, the parties evidently assumed that the respondent was seized when she was approached on the airport concourse and was asked if she would show her identification and airline ticket. In its brief on the merits and oral argument in this Court, however, the Government has argued that no seizure occurred, and the respondent has joined the argument. While the Court ordinarily does not consider matters neither raised before nor decided by the courts below, see Adickes v. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 147, n. 2, it has done so in exceptional circumstances. See Youakim v. Miller, 425 U.S. 231, 234; Duignan v. United States, 274 U.S. 195, 200. We consider the Government's contention that there was no seizure of the respondent in this case because the contrary assumption, embraced by the trial court and the Court of Appeals, rests on a serious misapprehension of federal constitutional law. And because the determination of the question is essential to the correct disposition of the other issues in the case, we shall treat it as "fairly comprised" by the questions presented in the petition for certiorari. This Court's Rule 23(1)(c). See Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555, 559-560, n. 6; Blonder-Tongue Laboratories, Inc. v. University of Illinois Foundation, 402 U.S. 313, 320-321, n. 6.

The evidentiary record in the trial court is adequate to permit consideration of the contention. The material facts are not disputed. A major question throughout the controversy has been whether the respondent was at any time detained by the DEA agents. Counsel for the respondent has argued that she was arrested while proceeding through the concourse. The trial court and the Court of Appeals characterized the incident as an "investigatory stop." But the correctness of the legal characterization of the facts appearing in the record is a matter for this Court to determine. See Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 226; 412 U.S. 218, 226; Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 548-550.

6. We agree with the District Court that the subjective intention of the DEA agent in this case to detain the respondent, had she attempted to leave, is irrelevant except insofar as that may have been conveyed to the respondent.

7. It is arguable that the respondent may have thought she was acting in her self-interest by voluntarily cooperating with the officers in the hope of receiving more lenient treatment.