Law enforcement officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable seizures merely by approaching individuals on the street or in other public places and putting questions to them if they are willing to listen. Even when law enforcement officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, they may pose questions, ask for identification, and request consent to search luggage -- provided they do not induce cooperation by coercive means. If a reasonable person would feel free to terminate the encounter, then he or she has not been seized.
The driver of the bus on which respondents Christopher Drayton and Clifton Brown, Jr. were traveling allowed three police officers to board as part of a routine drug and weapons interdiction effort. They were dressed in plain clothes and carried concealed weapons and visible badges. The officers positioned themselves in a manner that would not block the aisle or door of the bus. One of the officers, Officer Lang, approached two passengers, respondents Drayton and Brown, seated next to each other. After Officer Lang identified himself as a police officer, asked the passengers to identify their luggage. The respondents indicated one piece of luggage as belonging to them and consented to having the bag searched. When Officer Lang asked, "Do you mind if I check your person?" Brown replied "Sure" and opened his jacket and positioned himself in a manner that would facilitate the search. Officer Lang found packets of the type often used to carry illegal drugs on Brown’s person. He was arrested and led from the bus. Then Drayton was asked, "Mind if I check you?" and when he consented, similar packets were found on his person and he too was arrested. Both respondents were charged under Federal law with (1) conspiring to distribute cocaine, and (2) possessing cocaine with intent to distribute it. Respondents moved to suppress the cocaine on the ground that their consent to the pat-down searches was invalid. In denying the motions, the District Court determined that the police conduct was not coercive and respondents' consent to the search was voluntary. The Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded based on its prior holdings that bus passengers do not feel free to disregard officers' requests to search absent some positive indication that consent may be refused.
Was the conduct of the police coercive, thereby, rendering the consent of Respondents Drayton and Brown involuntary?
The United States Supreme Court held that the police did not seize the defendants when they boarded the bus and began questioning passengers. According to the Court, the officers gave the passengers no reason to believe that they were required to answer questions. The officers did not brandish weapons or make any intimidating movements, they left the aisle free so that passengers could exit, and spoke to them one by one in a polite, quiet voice. The Court opined that nothing the officer said would have suggested to a reasonable person that he was barred from leaving or terminating the encounter. The Court ruled that the questioning took place on a bus did not on its own transform it into an illegal seizure. The fact that the officers were not in uniform or visibly armed had little weight. The Court noted that the officer asked the defendants first if they objected to a search. Even after arresting one defendant, the officer addressed the second defendant politely and gave no indication that he was required to answer questions or consent to a search. Although the officer did not inform the defendants of their right to refuse the search, he did request permission to search. The Court concluded that the totality of the circumstances indicated that the consent was voluntary.