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United States v. Sokolow - 490 U.S. 1, 109 S. Ct. 1581 (1989)


The police can stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity may be afoot, even if the officer lacks probable cause. The officer, of course, must be able to articulate something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch. The Fourth Amendment requires some minimal level of objective justification for making the stop. That level of suspicion is considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence. Probable cause means a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found, and the level of suspicion required for a Terry stop is obviously less demanding than that for probable cause.


Defendant Andrew Sokolow was stopped by federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents upon his arrival at Honolulu International Airport. The agents found 1,063 grams of cocaine in his carry-on luggage. When Sokolow was stopped, the agents knew, inter alia, that: (1) he paid $ 2,100 for two airplane tickets from a roll of $ 20 bills; (2) he traveled under a name that did not match the name under which his telephone number was listed; (3) his original destination was Miami, a source city for illicit drugs; (4) he stayed in Miami for only 48 hours, even though a round-trip flight from Honolulu to Miami took 20 hours; (5) he appeared nervous during his trip; and (6) he checked none of his luggage. Sokolow was convicted of possession with intent to distribute cocaine in federal district court. On appeal, a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the DEA agents did not have a reasonable suspicion to stop Sokolow, as required by the Fourth Amendment. The United States obtained a writ of certiorari.


Was Sokolow's conviction proper?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the appellate court's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court held that although each of Sokolow's actions by itself might have been innocent, the totality of all the circumstances together with all of Sokolow's actions were sufficient for DEA agents to have a reasonable suspicion that Sokolow was committing a drug crime. Because the standard for reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop was less than for probable cause, the Court determined that the DEA agents were justified in making the stop.

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