Law School Case Brief
United States v. Sharpe - 470 U.S. 675, 105 S. Ct. 1568 (1985)
In assessing whether detention is too long in duration to be justified as investigative stop, court considers it appropriate to examine whether police diligently pursued means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain defendant. A court making this assessment should take care to consider whether police are acting in swiftly developing situation, and in such cases the court should not indulge in unrealistic second-guessing. A creative judge engaged in post hoc evaluation of police conduct can almost always imagine some alternative means by which objectives of police might have been accomplished. But fact that protection of public might, in abstract, have been accomplished by "less intrusive" means does not, by itself, render search unreasonable. The question is not simply whether some other alternative was available, but whether police acted unreasonably in failing to recognize or to pursue it.
A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, while patrolling a highway in an area under surveillance for suspected drug trafficking, noticed an apparently overloaded pickup truck with an attached camper traveling in tandem with a Pontiac. Respondent Savage was driving the truck, and respondent Sharpe was driving the Pontiac. After following the two vehicles for about 20 miles, the agent decided to make an "investigative stop" and radioed the South Carolina State Highway Patrol for assistance. An officer responded, and he and the DEA agent continued to follow the two vehicles. When they attempted to stop the vehicles, the Pontiac pulled over to the side of the road, but the truck continued on, pursued by the state officer. After identifying himself and obtaining identification from Sharpe, the DEA agent attempted to radio the State Highway Patrol officer. The DEA agent was unable to contact the state officer to see if he had stopped the truck, so he radioed the local police for help. In the meantime, the state officer had stopped the truck, questioned Savage, and told him that he would be held until the DEA agent arrived. The agent, who had left the local police with the Pontiac, arrived at the scene approximately 15 minutes after the truck had been stopped. After confirming his suspicion that the truck was overloaded and upon smelling marihuana, the agent opened the rear of the camper without Savage's permission and observed a number of burlap-wrapped bales resembling bales of marihuana that the agent had seen in previous investigations. The agent then placed Savage under arrest and, returning to the Pontiac, also arrested Sharpe. Chemical tests later showed that the bales contained marihuana. Respondents were charged with federal drug offenses, and, after the District Court denied their motion to suppress the contraband, were convicted. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that because the investigative stops failed to meet the Fourth Amendment's requirement of brevity governing detentions on less than probable cause, the marihuana should have been suppressed as the fruit of unlawful seizures. The government petitioned for a writ of certiorari.
Did the investigative stops meet the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of brevity governing detentions on less than probable cause?
The Court held that the detention in question met the Fourth Amendment’s standard of reasonableness. According to the Court, in assessing whether a police detention was too long in duration to be justified as an investigative stop, it was appropriate to examine whether the officer diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel his suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain defendants. The Court held that because the officer pursued his investigation of defendants in a diligent and reasonable manner, and the delay was attributable almost entirely to the evasive actions of one defendant, the 20-minute stop was not violative of the Fourth Amendment.
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