Law School Case Brief
United States v. Martinez-Fuerte - 428 U.S. 543, 96 S. Ct. 3074 (1976)
Stops for brief questioning routinely conducted at permanent checkpoints are consistent with U.S. Const. amend. IV need not be authorized by warrant. The principal protection of U.S. Const. amend. IV rights at checkpoints lies in appropriate limitations on the scope of the stop.
Each of the defendants in cases No. 74-1560 and No. 75-5387, traveling by vehicle from Mexico to the United States, was arrested at a permanent immigration checkpoint operated by the Border Patrol away from the international border with Mexico, and each sought, at his trial on charges of illegal transportation of aliens, to suppress, among other things, the testimony of one or more of these aliens on the ground that the operation of the checkpoint was incompatible with the Fourth Amendment. The defendants in No. 74-1560 were arrested at a checkpoint near San Clemente, California, which was operated under a magistrate's "warrant of inspection." In separate trials in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, conducted by different district judges, one defendant's motion to suppress was denied and he was convicted. The other defendants' motions to suppress were granted. On appeal from the conviction and on the government's appeal from the grant of the motion to suppress, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction and affirmed the orders to suppress in the other cases (514 F2d 308). A contrary result was reached by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in case No. 75-5387, as to a defendant arrested at a permanent checkpoint near Sarita, Texas, which was conducted without a judicial warrant. His motion to suppress was denied by the appropriate United States District Court and he was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in an unpublished order. In consolidated cases, petitioner United States challenged the order of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversing one defendant's conviction, and, in the other cases, affirming orders to suppress evidence obtained at fixed checkpoints by the border patrol, on grounds that the checkpoint stops violated U.S. Const. amend. IV.
Did the operation of fixed checkpoints, as well as stops and questioning in the absence of any warrant and individualized suspicion, violate the U.S. Const. amend. IV?
The United States Supreme Court held that the operation of fixed checkpoints need not be authorized in advance by warrant, and stops and questioning could be made in the absence of any individualized suspicion at reasonably located checkpoints. The Court employed a balancing test and said that the need to make routine checkpoint stops was great, while the intrusion on U.S. Const. amend. IV interests was limited. Requiring reasonable suspicion would be impractical because the flow of traffic was too heavy to allow a particularized study enabling a given car to be identified as a possible carrier of illegal aliens. The Court contrasted the level of intrusion at a checkpoint stop with that of a roving patrol and also cited the relatively low expectation of privacy in an automobile. The Court affirmed one defendant's conviction and reversed and remanded the remaining cases with directions to affirm the conviction of the other defendant.
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