462 U.S. 579 (1983), 81-1350, United States v. Villamonte-marquez

Docket Nº:No. 81-1350.
Citation:462 U.S. 579, 103 S.Ct. 2573, 77 L.Ed.2d 22
Party Name:UNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Jose Reynaldo VILLAMONTE-MARQUEZ et al.
Case Date:June 17, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 579

462 U.S. 579 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 2573, 77 L.Ed.2d 22

UNITED STATES, Petitioner

v.

Jose Reynaldo VILLAMONTE-MARQUEZ et al.

No. 81-1350.

United States Supreme Court.

June 17, 1983

Argued Feb. 23, 1983.

[103 S.Ct. 2574] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

Title 19 U.S.C. § 1581(a) authorizes customs officers to board any vessel at any time and at any place in the United States to examine the vessel's manifest and other documents. Customs officers, while patrolling a ship channel which connects the Gulf of Mexico with Lake Charles, La., a Customs Port of Entry, sighted an anchored, 40-foot sailboat. The wake of a passing vessel caused the sailboat to rock violently, and when one of the two respondents, who were aboard the vessel, shrugged his shoulders in an unresponsive manner when asked if the sailboat and crew were all right, one of the customs officers, accompanied by a Louisiana State Police officer, boarded the sailboat and asked to see the vessel's documentation. While examining a document, the customs officer smelled [103 S.Ct. 2575] what he thought to be burning marihuana and, looking through an open hatch, saw burlap-wrapped bales that proved to be marihuana. Respondents were then arrested and given Miranda warnings, and a subsequent search revealed more marihuana stored throughout the vessel. Upon trial in Federal District Court, respondents were convicted of various federal drug offenses, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the officers' boarding of the sailboat violated the Fourth Amendment because the boarding occurred in the absence of "a reasonable suspicion of a law violation."

Held: The action of the customs officers in boarding the sailboat pursuant to § 1581(a) was "reasonable," and was therefore consistent with the Fourth Amendment. Although no Act of Congress can authorize a violation of the Constitution, in 1790, in a lineal ancestor to § 1581(a), the First Congress clearly authorized the suspicionless boarding of vessels by Government officers, reflecting its view that such boardings are not contrary to the Fourth Amendment, which was promulgated by the same Congress. While random stops of vehicles, without any articulable suspicion of unlawful conduct, away from the Nation's borders are not permissible under the Fourth Amendment, United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 95 S.Ct. 2574, 45 L.Ed.2d 607; Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660, whereas vehicles stops at fixed checkpoints or at roadblocks are, United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 96 S.Ct. 3074, 49 L.Ed.2d 1116; Delaware v. Prouse, supra, the nature of waterborne commerce in waters providing ready access to

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the open sea is sufficiently different from the nature of vehicular traffic on highways as to make possible alternatives to the sort of "stop" made in this case less likely to accomplish the obviously essential governmental purposes involved. The system of prescribed outward markings used by States for vehicle registration is also significantly different than the system of external markings on vessels, and the extent and type of vessel documentation required by federal law is a good deal more variable and complex than are the state vehicle registration laws. Moreover, governmental interests in assuring compliance with vessel documentation requirements, particularly in waters where the need to deter or apprehend smugglers is great, are substantial, whereas the type of intrusion made in this case, while not minimal, is limited. Pp. 2577-2582.

652 F.2d 481 (5th Cir., 1981), reversed.

COUNSEL

Samuel A. Alito, Jr., argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Jensen, Deputy Solicitor General Frey, Louis M. Fischer, and Stuart P. Seidel.

Richard P. Ieyoub argued the cause and filed a brief for respondents.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Newark, N.J., for petitioner.

Richard P. Ieyoub, Lake Charles, La., for respondents.

OPINION

Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Congress has provided that "[a]ny officer of the customs may at any time go on board of any vessel ... at any place in the United States ... and examine the manifest and other documents and papers ... and to this end may hail and stop such vessel ... and use all necessary force to compel compliance." 19 U.S.C. § 1581(a) (1976).1 We are asked to decide whether the Fourth Amendment is offended when Customs officials, acting pursuant to this

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statute and without any suspicion of wrongdoing, board for inspection of documents a vessel that is located in waters providing ready access to the open sea.2

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[103 S.Ct. 2576] Near midday on March 6, 1980, Customs officers, accompanied by Louisiana state policemen, were patroling the Calcasieu River Ship Channel, some 18 miles inland from the Gulf coast, when they sighted the Henry Morgan II, a 40 foot sailboat, anchored facing east on the west side of the channel. The Calcasieu River Ship Channel is a north-south waterway connecting the Gulf of Mexico with Lake Charles, Louisiana. Lake Charles, located in the southwestern corner of Louisiana, is a designated Customs Port of Entry in the Houston, Texas Region. While there is access to the channel from Louisiana's Calcasieu Lake, the channel is a separate thoroughfare to the west of the Lake through which all vessels moving between Lake Charles and the open sea of the Gulf must traverse.

Shortly after sighting the sailboat, the officers also observed a large freighter moving north in the channel. The freighter was creating a huge wake and as it passed the Henry Morgan II the wake caused the smaller vessel to rock violently from side to side. The patrol boat then approached the sailboat from the port side and passed behind its stern.

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On the stern the name of the vessel, the "Henry Morgan II," was displayed along with its home port, "Basilea." The officers sighted one man, respondent Hamparian, on deck. Officer Wilkins twice asked if the sailboat and [103 S.Ct. 2577] crew were all right. Hamparian shrugged his shoulders in an unresponsive manner.

Officer Wilkins, accompanied by Officer Dougherty of the Louisiana State Police, then boarded the Henry Morgan II and asked to see the vessel's documentation. Hamparian handed Officer Wilkins what appeared to be a request to change the registration of a ship from Swiss registry to French registry, written in French and dated February 6, 1980. It subsequently was discovered that the home port designation of "Basilea" was Latin for Basel, Switzerland; the vessel was, however, of French registry.

While examining the document, Officer Wilkins smelled what he thought to be burning marijuana. Looking through an open hatch, Wilkins observed burlap-wrapped bales that proved to be marijuana. Respondent Villamonte-Marquez was on a sleeping bag atop of the bales. Wilkins arrested both Hamparian and Villamonte-Marquez and gave them Miranda warnings. A subsequent search revealed some 5,800 pounds of marijuana on the Henry Morgan II, stored in almost every conceivable place including the forward, mid, and aft cabins, and under the seats in the open part of the vessel.

A jury found respondents guilty of conspiring to import marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 963, importing marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 952(a), conspiring to possess marijuana with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and possessing marijuana with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of conviction, finding that the officers' boarding of the Henry Morgan II "was not reasonable under the fourth amendment" because the boarding occurred in the absence of "a reasonable

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suspicion of a law violation." 652 F.2d 481, 488 (CA5 1981). Because of a conflict among the Circuits and the importance of the question presented as it affects the enforcement of Customs laws, we granted certiorari. 457 U.S. 1104, 102 S.Ct. 2902, 73 L.Ed.2d 1312 (1982).3 We now reverse.

In 1790 the First Congress enacted a comprehensive statute "to provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels." Act of Aug. 4, 1790, ch. 35, 1 Stat. 145. Section 31 of that Act provided in pertinent part as follows:

"That it shall be lawful for all collectors, naval officers, surveyors, inspectors, and the officers of the revenue cutters herein after mentioned, to go on board of ships or vessels in any part of the United States, or within four leagues of the coast thereof, if bound to the United States, whether in or out of their respective districts, for the purposes of demanding the manifests aforesaid, and of examining and searching the said ships or vessels ...." 1 Stat. 164.

This statute appears to be the lineal ancestor of the provision of present law upon which the government relies to sustain

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the boarding of the vessel in this case. 19 U.S.C. § 1581(a) provides that "any officer of the Customs may at any time go on [103 S.Ct. 2578] board of any vessel ... at any place in the United States or within the Customs waters ... and examine the manifest and other documents and papers...."

The Government insists that the language of the statute clearly authorized the boarding of the vessel in this case. The respondents do not seriously dispute this contention, but contend that even though authorized by statute the boarding here violated the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures contained in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We of course...

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