422 U.S. 873 (1975), 74-114, United States v. Brignoni-Ponce

Docket Nº:No. 74-114
Citation:422 U.S. 873, 95 S.Ct. 2574, 45 L.Ed.2d 607
Party Name:United States v. Brignoni-Ponce
Case Date:June 30, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

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422 U.S. 873 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 2574, 45 L.Ed.2d 607

United States



No. 74-114

United States Supreme Court

June 30, 1975

Argued February 18, 1975




The Fourth Amendment held not to allow a roving patrol of the Border Patrol to stop a vehicle near the Mexican border and question its occupants about their citizenship and immigration status, when the only ground for suspicion is that the occupants appear to be of Mexican ancestry. Except at the border and its functional equivalents, patrolling officers may stop vehicles only if they are aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences therefrom, reasonably warranting suspicion that the vehicles contain aliens who may be illegally in the country. Pp. 878-887.

(a) Because of the important governmental interest in preventing the illegal entry of aliens at the border, the minimal intrusion of a brief stop, and the absence of practical alternatives for policing the border, an officer whose observations lead him reasonably to suspect that a particular vehicle may contain aliens who are illegally in the country may stop the car briefly, question the driver and passengers about their citizenship and immigration status, and ask them to explain suspicious circumstances; but any further detention or search must be based on consent or probable cause. Pp. 878-882.

(b) To allow roving patrols the broad and unlimited discretion urged by the Government to stop all vehicles in the border area without any reason to suspect that they have violated any law, would not be "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 882-883.

(c) Assuming that Congress has the power to admit aliens on condition that they submit to reasonable questioning about their right to be in the country, [95 S.Ct. 2577] such power cannot diminish the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens who may be mistaken for aliens. The Fourth Amendment therefore forbids stopping persons for questioning about their citizenship on less than a reasonable suspicion that they may be aliens. Pp. 883-884.

499 F.2d 1109, affirmed.

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POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 887. BURGER, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 899. DOUGLAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 888. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 914.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case raises questions as to the United States Border Patrol's authority to stop automobiles in areas near the Mexican border. It differs from our decision in Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266 (1973), in that the Border Patrol does not claim authority to search cars, but only to question the occupants about their citizenship and immigration status.


As part of its regular traffic-checking operations in southern California, the Border Patrol operates a fixed checkpoint on Interstate Highway 5 south of San Clemente. On the evening of March 11, 1973, the checkpoint was closed because of inclement weather, but two officers were observing northbound traffic from a patrol

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car parked at the side of the highway. The road was dark, and they were using the patrol car's headlights to illuminate passing cars. They pursued respondent's car and stopped it, saying later that their only reason for doing so was that its three occupants appeared to be of Mexican descent. The officers questioned respondent and his two passengers about their citizenship and learned that the passengers were aliens who had entered the country illegally. All three were then arrested, and respondent was charged with two counts of knowingly transporting illegal immigrants, a violation of § 274(a)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 66 Stat. 228, 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2). At trial, respondent moved to suppress the testimony of and about the two passengers, claiming that this evidence was the fruit of an illegal seizure. The trial court denied the motion, the aliens testified at trial, and respondent was convicted on both counts.

Respondent's appeal was pending in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit when we announced our decision in Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, supra, holding that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of roving patrols to search vehicles, without a warrant or probable cause, at points removed from the border and its functional equivalents. The Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, held that the stop in this case more closely resembled a roving patrol stop than a stop at a traffic checkpoint, and applied the principles of Almeida-Sanchez.1

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The court held that the Fourth Amendment, as interpreted in Almeida-Sanchez, forbids stopping a vehicle, even for the limited purpose of questioning its occupants, unless the officers have a "founded suspicion" that the occupants are aliens illegally in the country. The court refused to find that Mexican ancestry alone supported such a "founded suspicion," and held that respondent's motion to suppress should have been granted.2 499 F.2d 1109 (1974). [95 S.Ct. 2578] We granted certiorari and set the case for oral argument with No. 73-2050, United States v. Ortiz, post, p. 891, and No. 73-6848, Bowen v. United States, post, p. 916. 419 U.S. 824 (1974).

The Government does not challenge the Court of Appeals' factual conclusion that the stop of respondent's car was a roving patrol stop, rather than a checkpoint stop. Brief for United States 8. Nor does it challenge the retroactive application of Almeida-Sanchez, supra, Brief for United States 9, or contend that the San Clemente checkpoint is the functional equivalent of the border. The only issue presented for decision is whether a roving patrol may stop a vehicle in an area near the border and question its occupants when the only ground for suspicion is that the occupants appear to be of Mexican ancestry. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.


The Government claims two sources of statutory authority

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for stopping cars without warrants in the border areas. Section 287(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1357(a)(1), authorizes any officer or employee of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) without a warrant, "to interrogate any alien or person believed to be an alien as to his right to be or to remain in the United States." There is no geographical limitation on this authority. The Government contends that, at least in the areas adjacent to the Mexican border, a person's apparent Mexican ancestry alone justifies belief that he or she is an alien and satisfies the requirement of this statute. Section 287(a)(3) of the Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1357(a)(3), authorizes agents, without a warrant,

within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States, to board and search for aliens any vessel within the territorial waters of the United States and any railway car, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle. . . .

Under current regulations, this authority may be exercised anywhere within 100 miles of the border. 8 CFR § 287.1(a) (1975). The Border Patrol interprets the statute as granting authority to stop moving vehicles and question the occupants about their citizenship, even when its officers have no reason to believe that the occupants are aliens or that other aliens may be concealed in the vehicle.3 But "no Act of Congress can authorize a violation of the Constitution," Almeida-Sanchez, supra at 272,

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and we must decide whether the Fourth Amendment allows such random vehicle stops in the border areas.


The Fourth Amendment applies to all seizures of the person, including seizures that involve only a brief detention short of traditional arrest. Davis v. Mississippi, 394 U.S. 721 (1969); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16-19 (1968). "[W]henever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has `seized' that person," id. at 16, and the Fourth Amendment requires that the seizure be "reasonable." As with other categories of police action subject [95 S.Ct. 2579] to Fourth Amendment constraints, the reasonableness of such seizures depends on a balance between the public interest and the individual's right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers. Id. at 20-21; Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 536-537 (1967).

The Government makes a convincing demonstration that the public interest demands effective measures to prevent the illegal entry of aliens at the Mexican border. Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the United States vary widely. A conservative estimate in 1972 produced a figure of about one million, but the INS now suggests there may be as many as 10 or 12 million aliens illegally in the country.4 Whatever the number, these aliens create significant economic and social problems, competing with citizens and legal resident

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aliens for jobs, and generating extra demand for social services. The aliens themselves are vulnerable to exploitation because they cannot complain of substandard working conditions without risking deportation. See generally Hearings on Illegal Aliens before Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 92d Cong., 1st and 2d Sess., ser. 13, pts. 1-5 (1971-1972).

The Government has estimated that 85% of the aliens illegally in the country are from Mexico. United States v. Baca, 368 F.Supp. 398, 402 (SD Cal 1973).5 The Mexican border is almost 2,000 miles long, and even a vastly reinforced Border Patrol would find it impossible to prevent illegal border crossings. Many...

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