Border Searches.—"That searches made at the border, pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border, should, by now, require no extended demonstration."276 Authorized by the First Congress,277 the customs search in these circumstances requires no warrant, no probable cause, not even the showing of some degree of suspicion that accompanies even investigatory stops.278 Moreover, while prolonged detention of travelers beyond the routine customs search and inspection must be justified by the Terry standard of reasonable suspicion having a particularized and objective basis,279 Terry protections as to the length and intrusiveness of the search do not apply.280
Inland stoppings and searches in areas away from the borders are a different matter altogether. Thus, in Almeida-Sanchez v. United States,281 the Court held that a warrantless stop and search of defendant's automobile on a highway some 20 miles from the border by a roving patrol lacking probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained illegal aliens violated the Fourth Amendment. Similarly, the Court invalidated an automobile search at a fixed checkpoint well removed from the border; while agreeing that a fixed checkpoint probably gave motorists less cause for alarm than did roving patrols, the Court nonetheless held that the invasion of privacy entailed in a search was just as intrusive and must be justified by a showing of probable cause or consent.282 On the other hand, when motorists are briefly stopped, not for purposes of a search but in order that officers may inquire into their residence status, either by asking a few questions or by checking papers, different results are achieved, so long as the stops are not truly random. Roving patrols may stop vehicles for purposes of a brief inquiry, provided officers are "aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts, that reasonably warrant suspicion" that an automobile contains illegal aliens; in such a case the interference with Fourth Amendment rights is "modest" and the law enforcement interests served are significant.283 Fixed checkpoints provide additional safeguards; here officers may halt all vehicles briefly in order to question occupants even in the absence of any reasonable suspicion that the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens.284
276 United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606, 616 (1977) (sustaining search of incoming mail). See also Illinois v. Andreas, 463 U.S. 765 (1983) (opening by customs inspector of locked container shipped from abroad).
277 Act of July 31, 1789, ch. 5, §§ 23, 24, 1 Stat. 43. See 19 U.S.C. §§ 507, 1581, 1582.
278 Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 154 (1925); United States v. Thirty-Seven Photographs, 402 U.S. 363, 376 (1971); Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266, 272 (1973).
279 United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531 (1985) (approving warrantless detention incommunicado for more than 24 hours of traveler suspected of alimentary canal drug smuggling).
280 Id. A traveler suspected of alimentary canal drug smuggling was strip searched, and then given a choice between an abdominal x-ray or monitored bowel movements. Because the suspect chose the latter option, the court disavowed decision as to "what level of suspicion, if any, is required for . . . strip, body cavity, or involuntary x-ray searches." Id. at 541 n.4.
281 413 U.S. 266 (1973). Justices White, Blackmun, Rehnquist, and Chief Justice Burger would have found the search reasonable upon the congressional determination that searches by such roving patrols were the only effective means to police border smuggling. Id. at 285. Justice Powell, concurring, argued in favor of a general, administrative warrant authority not tied to particular vehicles, much like the type of warrant suggested for noncriminal administrative inspections of homes and commercial establishments for health and safety purposes, id. at 275, but the Court has not yet had occasion to pass on a specific case. See United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 547 n.2, 562 n.15 (1976).
282 United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891 (1975).
283 United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975). However, stopping of defendant's car solely because the officers observed the Mexican appearance of the occupants was unjustified. Id. at 886. Contrast United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411 (1981), and United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266 (2002), where border agents did have grounds for reasonable suspicion that the vehicle they stopped contained illegal aliens.
284 United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976). The Court deemed the intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests to be quite limited, even if officers acted on the basis of the Mexican appearance of the occupants in referring motorists to a secondary inspection area for questioning, whereas the elimination of the practice would deny to the Government its only practicable way to apprehend smuggled aliens and to deter the practice. Similarly, outside of the border/aliens context, the Court has upheld use of fixed "sobriety" checkpoints at which all motorists are briefly stopped for preliminary questioning and observation for signs of intoxication. Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990).
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Last modified: June 9, 2014