473 U.S. 531 (1985), 84-755, United States v. Montoya de Hernandez

Docket Nº:No. 84-755
Citation:473 U.S. 531, 105 S.Ct. 3304, 87 L.Ed.2d 381, 53 U.S.L.W. 5048
Party Name:United States v. Montoya de Hernandez
Case Date:July 01, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 531

473 U.S. 531 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 3304, 87 L.Ed.2d 381, 53 U.S.L.W. 5048

United States


Montoya de Hernandez

No. 84-755

United States Supreme Court

July 1, 1985

Argued April 24, 1985




Upon her arrival at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from Bogota, Colombia, respondent was detained by customs officials when after examination of her passport and the contents of her valise and questioning by the officials, she was suspected of being a "balloon swallower," i.e., one who attempts to smuggle narcotics into this country hidden in her alimentary canal. She was detained incommunicado for almost 16 hours before the officials sought a court order authorizing a pregnancy test (she having claimed to be pregnant), an x-ray, and a rectal examination. During those 16 hours, she was given the option of returning to Colombia on the next available flight, agreeing to an x-ray, or remaining in detention until she produced a monitored bowel movement. She chose the first option, but the officials were unable to place her on the next flight, and she refused to use the toilet facilities. Pursuant to the court order, a pregnancy test was conducted at a hospital and proved negative, and a rectal examination resulted in the obtaining of 88 cocaine-filled balloons that had been smuggled in her alimentary canal. Subsequently, after a suppression hearing, the District Court admitted the cocaine in evidence against respondent, and she was convicted of various federal narcotics offenses. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that respondent's detention violated the Fourth Amendment because the customs officials did not have a "clear indication" of alimentary canal smuggling at the time respondent was detained.

Held: The detention of a traveler at the border, beyond the scope of a routine customs search and inspection, is justified at its inception if customs agents, considering all the facts surrounding the traveler and her trip, reasonably suspect that the traveler is smuggling contraband in her alimentary canal; here, the facts, and their rational inferences, known to the customs officials clearly supported a reasonable suspicion that respondent was an alimentary canal smuggler. Pp. 536-544.

(a) The Fourth Amendment's emphasis upon reasonableness is not consistent with the creation of a "clear indication" standard to cover a case such as this as an intermediate standard between "reasonable suspicion" and "probable cause." Pp. 537-541.

(b) The "reasonable suspicion" standard effects a needed balance between private and public interests when law enforcement officials must

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make a limited intrusion on less than probable cause. It thus fits well into situations involving alimentary canal smuggling at the border: this type of smuggling gives no external signs, and inspectors will rarely possess probable cause to arrest or search, yet governmental interests in stopping smuggling at the border are high. Pp. 541-542.

(c) Under the circumstances, respondent's detention, while long, uncomfortable, and humiliating, was not unreasonably long. Alimentary canal smuggling cannot be detected in the amount of time in which other illegal activity may be investigated through brief stops. When respondent refused an x-ray as an alternative to simply awaiting her bowel movement, the customs inspectors were left with only two practical alternatives: detain her for such time as necessary to confirm their suspicions or turn her loose into the interior of the country carrying the reasonably suspected contraband drugs. Moreover, both the length of respondent's detention and its discomfort resulted solely from the method that she chose to smuggle illicit drugs into this country. And in the presence of an articulable suspicion of alimentary canal smuggling, the customs officials were not required by the Fourth Amendment to pass respondent and her cocaine-filled balloons into the interior. Pp. 542-544.

731 F.2d 1369, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 545. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 545.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Rosa Elvira Montoya de Hernandez was detained by customs officials upon her arrival at the Los Angeles Airport on a flight from Bogota, Colombia. She was found to be smuggling 88 cocaine-filled balloons in her alimentary

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canal, and was convicted after a bench trial of various federal narcotics offenses. A divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed her convictions, holding that her detention violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution because the customs inspectors did not have a "clear indication" of alimentary canal smuggling at the time she was detained. 731 F.2d 1369 (1984). Because of a conflict in the decisions of the Courts of Appeals on this question and the importance of its resolution to the enforcement of customs laws, we granted certiorari. 469 U.S. 1188. We now reverse.

Respondent arrived at Los Angeles International Airport shortly after midnight, March 5, 1983, on Avianca Flight 080, a direct 10-hour flight from Bogota, Colombia. Her visa was in order, so she was passed through Immigration and proceeded to the customs desk. At the customs desk, she encountered Customs Inspector Talamantes, who reviewed her documents and noticed from her passport that she had made at least eight recent trips to either Miami or Los Angeles. Talamantes referred respondent to a secondary customs desk for further questioning. At this desk, Talamantes and another inspector asked respondent general questions concerning herself and the purpose of her trip. Respondent revealed that she spoke no English and had no family or friends in the United States. She explained in Spanish that she had come to the United States to purchase goods for her husband's store in Bogota. The customs inspectors recognized Bogota as a "source city" for narcotics. Respondent possessed $5,000 in cash, mostly $50 bills, but had no billfold. She indicated to the inspectors that she had no appointments with merchandise vendors, but planned to ride around Los Angeles in taxicabs visiting retail stores such as J. C. Penney and K-Mart in order to buy goods for her husband's store with the $5,000.

Respondent admitted that she had no hotel reservations, but stated that she planned to stay at a Holiday Inn. Respondent could not recall how her airline ticket was purchased.

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When the inspectors opened respondent's one small valise, they found about four changes of "cold weather" clothing. Respondent had no shoes other than the high-heeled pair she was wearing. Although respondent possessed no checks, waybills, credit cards, or letters [105 S.Ct. 3307] of credit, she did produce a Colombian business card and a number of old receipts, waybills, and fabric swatches displayed in a photo album.

At this point, Talamantes and the other inspector suspected that respondent was a "balloon swallower," one who attempts to smuggle narcotics into this country hidden in her alimentary canal. Over the years, Inspector Talamantes had apprehended dozens of alimentary canal smugglers arriving on Avianca Flight 080. See App. 42; United States v. Mendez-Jimenez, 709 F.2d 1300, 1301 (CA9 1983).

The inspectors requested a female customs inspector to take respondent to a private area and conduct a patdown and strip search. During the search, the female inspector felt respondent's abdomen area and noticed a firm fullness, as if respondent were wearing a girdle. The search revealed no contraband, but the inspector noticed that respondent was wearing two pairs of elastic underpants with a paper towel lining the crotch area.

When respondent returned to the customs area and the female inspector reported her discoveries, the inspector in charge told respondent that he suspected she was smuggling drugs in her alimentary canal. Respondent agreed to the inspector's request that she be x-rayed at a hospital, but in answer to the inspector's query, stated that she was pregnant. She agreed to a pregnancy test before the x-ray. Respondent withdrew the consent for an x-ray when she learned that she would have to be handcuffed en route to the hospital. The inspector then gave respondent the option of returning to Colombia on the next available flight, agreeing to an x-ray, or remaining in detention until she produced a monitored bowel movement that would confirm or rebut the inspectors'

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suspicions. Respondent chose the first option, and was placed in a customs office under observation. She was told that, if she went to the toilet she would have to use a wastebasket in the women's restroom in order that female customs inspectors could inspect her stool for balloons or capsules carrying narcotics. The inspectors refused respondent's request to place a telephone call.

Respondent sat in the customs office, under observation, for the remainder of the night. During the night, customs officials attempted to place respondent on a Mexican airline that was flying to Bogota via Mexico City in the morning. The airline refused to transport respondent because she lacked a Mexican visa necessary to land in Mexico City. Respondent was not permitted to leave, and was informed that she would be detained until she agreed to an x-ray or her bowels moved. She remained detained in the customs office under observation, for most of the time curled up in a chair leaning to one side. She refused all offers of food and drink, and refused to use the toilet facilities. The Court of Appeals noted that she exhibited...

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