Law School Case Brief
United States v. Montoya De Hernandez - 473 U.S. 531, 105 S. Ct. 3304 (1985)
The Fourth Amendment commands that searches and seizures be reasonable. What is reasonable depends upon all of the circumstances surrounding the search or seizure and the nature of the search or seizure itself.
Upon her arrival at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from Bogota, Colombia, respondent Rosa Elvira Montoya de Hernandez was detained by customs officials when, after examination of her passport and the contents of her valise and questioning by the officials, she was suspected of being a "balloon swallower," i. e., one who attempts to smuggle narcotics into the country hidden in her alimentary canal. She was detained incommunicado for almost 16 hours before the officials sought a court order authorizing a pregnancy test (she having claimed to be pregnant), an x-ray, and a rectal examination. During those 16 hours, she was given the option of returning to Colombia on the next available flight, agreeing to an x-ray, or remaining in detention until she produced a monitored bowel movement. She chose the first option, but the officials were unable to place her on the next flight, and she refused to use the toilet facilities. Pursuant to the court order, a pregnancy test was conducted at a hospital and proved negative, and a rectal examination resulted in the obtaining of 88 cocaine-filled balloons that had been smuggled in her alimentary canal. Subsequently, at trial in federal district and after a suppression hearing, the district court admitted the cocaine into evidence against respondent, and she was convicted of various federal narcotics offenses. The acourt of Appeals reversed, holding that respondent's detention violated the Fourth Amendment because the customs officials did not have a "clear indication" of alimentary canal smuggling at the time respondent was detained.
Taking into consideration the circumstances of the case at hand, was respondent's detention violative of the Fourth Amendment?
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the detention of a traveler at the border, beyond the scope of a routine customs search and inspection, was justified at its inception if customs agents, considering all the facts surrounding the traveler and her trip, reasonably suspect that the traveler was smuggling contraband in her alimentary canal. In respondent's case, the facts, and their rational inferences, known to the customs officials clearly supported a reasonable suspicion that respondent was an alimentary canal smuggler. Under the circumstances, respondent's detention, while long, uncomfortable, and humiliating, was not unreasonably long. When respondent refused an x-ray as an alternative to simply awaiting her bowel movement, the customs inspectors were left with only two practical alternatives: detain her for such time as necessary to confirm their suspicions or turn her loose into the interior of the country carrying the reasonably suspected contraband drugs. Moreover, both the length of respondent's detention and its discomfort resulted solely from the method that she chose to smuggle illicit drugs into this country. The Court held that in the presence of an articulable suspicion of alimentary canal smuggling, the customs officials were not required by the Fourth Amendment to pass respondent and her cocaine-filled balloons into the interior.
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