Law School Case Brief
United States v. Mendenhall - 446 U.S. 544, 100 S. Ct. 1870 (1980)
A person has been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. IV, only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave. Examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled. In the absence of some such evidence, otherwise inoffensive contact between a member of the public and the police cannot, as a matter of law, amount to a seizure of that person.
Defendant Sylvia Mendenhall, prior to trial in federal district court on a charge of possessing heroin with intent to distribute it, moved to suppress the introduction in evidence of the heroin on the ground that it had been acquired through an unconstitutional search and seizure by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. At the hearing on the motion, it was established that when Mendenhall arrived at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a flight from Los Angeles, two DEA agents, observing that her conduct appeared to be characteristic of persons unlawfully carrying narcotics, approached her as she was walking through the concourse, identified themselves as federal agents, and asked to see her identification and airline ticket. After Mendenhall produced her driver's license, which was in her name, and her ticket, which was issued in another name, the agents questioned her briefly as to the discrepancy and as to how long she had been in California. After returning the ticket and driver's license to her, one of the agents asked if she would accompany him to the airport DEA office for further questions, and Mendenhall did so. At the office the agent asked Mendenhall if she would allow a search of her person and handbag and told her that she had the right to decline the search if she desired. She responded: "Go ahead," and handed her purse to the agent. A female police officer, who arrived to conduct the search of Mendenhall's person, also asked Mendenhall if she consented to the search, and Mendenhall replied that she did. When the policewoman explained that Mendenhall would have to remove her clothing, Mendenhall stated that she had a plane to catch and was assured that if she was not carrying narcotics there would be no problem. Mendenhall began to disrobe without further comment and took from her undergarments two packages, one of which appeared to contain heroin, and handed them to the policewoman. Mendenhall was then arrested for possessing heroin. The district court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the agents' conduct in initially approaching Mendenhall and asking to see her ticket and identification was a permissible investigative stop, based on facts justifying a suspicion of criminal activity, that Mendenhall had accompanied the agents to the DEA office voluntarily, and that Mendenhall voluntarily consented to the search in the DEA office. Mendenhall was convicted after trial. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed, finding that Mendenhall had not validly consented to the search. The Government was granted a writ of certiorari.
Was the agents' conduct in initially approaching Mendenhall and asking to see her ticket and identification a permissible investigative stop?
The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the appellate court's decision and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings. The Court ruled that that Mendenhall was not seized when she was approached by the DEA agents who asked to see her ticket and identification, even though Mendenhall was not expressly told that she was free to decline to cooperate with their inquiry. The Court held that a person had been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that she was not free to leave. The Court held that the totality of the evidence was adequate to support the district court's findings that Mendenhall voluntarily consented to accompany the officers and that Mendenhall consented to the search of her person freely and voluntarily.
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