Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 4 (1996)

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Cite as: 517 U. S. 690 (1996)

Opinion of the Court

Saul Ornelas and Ismael Ornelas. Hurrle asked them if he could search the car and petitioners consented. The men appeared calm, but Ismael was shaking somewhat. Deputy Luedke, who over the past nine years had searched approximately 2,000 cars for narcotics, searched the Oldsmobile's interior. He noticed that a panel above the right rear passenger armrest felt somewhat loose and suspected that the panel might have been removed and contraband hidden inside. Luedke would testify later that a screw in the door-jam adjacent to the loose panel was rusty, which to him meant that the screw had been removed at some time. Luedke dismantled the panel and discovered two kilograms of cocaine. Petitioners were arrested.

Petitioners filed pretrial motions to suppress, alleging that the police officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights when the officers detained them in the parking lot and when Deputy Luedke searched inside the panel without a warrant.1 The Government conceded in the court below that when the officers approached petitioners in the parking lot, a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave, so the encounter was an investigatory stop. See 16 F. 3d 714, 716 (CA7 1994). An investigatory stop is permissible under the Fourth Amendment if supported by reasonable suspicion, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1 (1968), and a warrantless search of a car is valid if based on probable cause, California v. Acevedo, 500 U. S. 565, 569-570 (1991).

1 Petitioners also alleged that they had not given their consent to search the interior of the car. The Magistrate Judge rejected this claim, finding that the record "clearly establishe[d] consent to search the Oldsmobile" and that "neither [petitioner] placed any restrictions on the areas the officers could search." App. 21. The Magistrate ruled that this consent did not give the officers authority to search inside the panel, however, because under Seventh Circuit precedent the police may not dismantle the car body during an otherwise valid search unless the police have probable cause to believe the car's panels contain narcotics. See United States v. Garcia, 897 F. 2d 1413, 1419-1420 (1990). We assume correct the Circuit's limitation on the scope of consent only for purposes of this decision.


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