Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 95-5257. Argued March 26, 1996—Decided May 28, 1996

In denying petitioners' motion to suppress cocaine found in their car, the District Court ruled that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop and question petitioners, and probable cause to remove one of the interior panels where a package containing the cocaine was found. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed both determinations, reviewing each "deferentially," and "for clear error," and finding no clear error in either instance.

Held: The ultimate questions of reasonable suspicion to stop and probable cause to make a warrantless search should be reviewed de novo. The principal components of either inquiry are (1) a determination of the historical facts leading up to the stop or search, and (2) a decision on the mixed question of law and fact whether the historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to reasonable suspicion or to probable cause. Independent appellate review of the latter determination is consistent with the position taken by this Court, see, e. g., Brinegar v. United States, 338 U. S. 160; will prevent unacceptably varied results based on the interpretation of similar facts by different trial judges, see id., at 171; is necessary if appellate courts are to maintain control of, and to clarify, the pertinent legal rules, see Miller v. Fenton, 474 U. S. 104, 114; and will tend to unify precedent and to provide police with a defined set of rules which, in most instances, will make it possible to reach a correct determination beforehand as to whether an invasion of privacy is justified in the interest of law enforcement, see, e. g., New York v. Belton, 453 U. S. 454, 458. However, a reviewing court should take care both to review findings of historical fact only for clear error and to give due weight to inferences drawn therefrom by resident judges, who view such facts in light of the community's distinctive features and events, and by local police, who view the facts through the lens of their experience and expertise. Pp. 695-700.

16 F. 3d 714 and 52 F. 3d 328, vacated and remanded.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 700.

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