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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Cortez - 449 U.S. 411, 101 S. Ct. 690 (1981)


Based upon the whole picture, the totality of the circumstances, detaining officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.


After discovering several sets of footprints bearing a distinctive and repetitive design in the same area of the Arizona desert, Border Patrol officers deduced that, on a number of occasions, the person having the distinctive footprints was guiding groups of from 8 to 20 persons illegally into the United States, across 30 miles of desert and mountains, over a fairly well-defined path to an isolated point near a highway where they could be picked up by a vehicle. From the route of the tracks and the times when discovered, the officers deduced that the guide probably led his groups across the border and to the pickup point at night, that he generally traveled during or near weekends and on nights when the weather was clear, and that the groups were picked up by a vehicle which approached the pickup point from the east and returned to the east. Two Border Patrolmen, who had been pursuing the investigation of the guide, chose a clear Sunday night, following two rainy evenings and two weeks since the last observed distinctive tracks had been made, to monitor a segment of the highway east of the pickup point. After observing only one vehicle of the kind that the guide would likely use to carry aliens pass them and after the estimated time needed to reach the pickup point, pass them again in the other direction, the officers stopped the vehicle. After observing that the person sitting in the passenger's seat was wearing shoes with soles matching the distinctive prints, the officers identified themselves and told the driver that they were conducting an immigration check and asked if he was carrying any passengers in the vehicle, following which the driver told them that he had picked up some hitchhikers and proceeded to open the back of the vehicle in which there were six illegal aliens. The officers then arrested the driver and the guide who were charged with six counts of transporting illegal aliens. By pretrial motion in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, defendants sought to suppress the evidence obtained by the officers as a result of stopping the vehicle, arguing that the officers did not have adequate cause to make the investigative stop. The district court denied the motion, and defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the officers lacked a sufficient basis to justify the stop of the pickup vehicle and therefore that the stop was a violation of the defendants' rights under the Fourth Amendment.


Was the investigative stop valid?




The Supreme Court of the United States held that the investigative stop was valid and did not violate defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. The court explained that an investigatory stop was justified if, based upon a totality of circumstances, the officers had a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity. The officers had determined that if, on the night that they believed defendants were likely to travel, a large enclosed vehicle was seen to make an east-west-east roundtrip to and from a deserted point on a deserted road, they would stop the vehicle on the return trip. The court stated that the test was not whether the officers had probable cause to conclude that the vehicle they stopped would contain defendants and a group of aliens. Rather the question was, based upon the whole picture, whether they could reasonably surmise that the particular vehicle stopped was engaged in criminal activity. The Court held that on the record they could have so concluded.

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