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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Brignoni-Ponce - 422 U.S. 873, 95 S. Ct. 2574 (1975)

Rule:

Except at the border and its functional equivalents, US Border Patrol officers on roving patrol may stop vehicles only if they are aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts, that reasonably warrant suspicion that the vehicles contain aliens who may be illegally in the country. The likelihood that any given person of Mexican ancestry is an alien is high enough to make Mexican appearance a relevant factor, but standing alone it does not justify stopping all Mexican-Americans to ask if they are aliens. 

Facts:

Defendant Brignoni was convicted for knowingly transporting illegal immigrants in violation of § 274(a)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C.S. § 1324(a)(2). Defendant's vehicle was stopped by United States Border Patrol officers on roving patrol because of the passengers' apparent Mexican descent. The officers later learned that passengers had entered the country illegally. Defendant filed a motion to suppress the testimony regarding the passengers, claiming this evidence was the fruit of an illegal seizure in violation of U.S. Const. amend. IV. The district court denied the motion, and defendant was convicted. The United States Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the motion to suppress should have been granted because the Fourth Amendment precluded such a stop when based merely on the apparent Mexican ancestry of a vehicle's occupants. The Government sought review.

Issue:

Did a suspicion that the vehicle contained illegal aliens based solely on the possible Mexican-American ancestry of passengers justify the warrantless search conducted by roving US border patrol officers, in an area near the border?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States explained that the only issue presented for decision was whether a roving patrol may stop a vehicle in an area near the border and question its occupants when the only ground for suspicion is that the occupants appear to be of Mexican ancestry. The Court affirmed the ruling of the  appellate court, holding that except at the border and its functional equivalents, officers on roving patrol could stop vehicles only if they were aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts, that reasonably warranted suspicion that the vehicles contained illegal aliens. Mexican ancestry, standing alone, did not justify the officers' stop. The Court reasoned that if it approved the Government's position in this case, Border Patrol officers could stop motorists at random for questioning, day or night, just about anywhere within 100 air miles of the 2,000-mile border, without any reason to suspect that they have violated any law. Applying a balancing test in which the public interest was weighed, the Court was not convinced that the legitimate needs of law enforcement require this degree of interference with lawful traffic. For the same reasons that the Fourth Amendment forbids stopping vehicles at random to inquire if they are carrying aliens who are illegally in the country, it also forbids stopping or detaining persons for questioning about their citizenship on less than a reasonable suspicion that they may be aliens.

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