Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 12 (1996)

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

Scalia, J., dissenting

a court must identify all of the relevant historical facts known to the officer at the time of the stop or search; and second, it must decide whether, under a standard of objective reasonableness, those facts would give rise to a reasonable suspicion justifying a stop or probable cause to search. See ante, at 696-697. Because this second step requires application of an objective legal standard to the facts, it is properly characterized as a mixed question of law and fact. See ibid.; Pullman-Standard v. Swint, 456 U. S. 273, 289, n. 19 (1982).

Merely labeling the issues "mixed questions," however, does not establish that they receive de novo review. While it is well settled that appellate courts "accep[t] findings of fact that are not 'clearly erroneous' but decid[e] questions of law de novo," First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U. S. 938, 948 (1995), there is no rigid rule with respect to mixed questions. We have said that "deferential review of mixed questions of law and fact is warranted when it appears that the district court is 'better positioned' than the appellate court to decide the issue in question or that probing appellate scrutiny will not contribute to the clarity of legal doctrine." Salve Regina College v. Russell, 499 U. S. 225, 233 (1991) (citing Miller v. Fenton, 474 U. S. 104, 114 (1985)).

These primary factors that counsel in favor of deferential review of some mixed questions of law and fact—expertise of the district court and lack of law-clarifying value in the appellate decision—are ordinarily present with respect to determinations of reasonable suspicion and probable cause. The factual details bearing upon those determinations are often numerous and (even when supported by uncontroverted police testimony) subject to credibility determinations. An appellate court never has the benefit of the district court's intimate familiarity with the details of the case—nor the full benefit of its hearing of the live testimony, unless the district court makes specific findings on the "totality of the circumstances" bearing upon the stop or search.


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