534 U.S. 266 (2002), 00-1519, United States v. Arvizu

Docket Nº:Case No. 00-1519
Citation:534 U.S. 266, 122 S.Ct. 744, 151 L.Ed.2d 740
Case Date:January 15, 2002
Court:United States Supreme Court

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534 U.S. 266 (2002)

122 S.Ct. 744, 151 L.Ed.2d 740




Case No. 00-1519

United States Supreme Court

January 15, 2002

Argued November 27, 2001



Respondent was stopped by Border Patrol Agent Stoddard while driving on an unpaved road in a remote area of southeastern Arizona. A search of his vehicle revealed more than 100 pounds of marijuana, and he was charged with possession with intent to distribute. The Federal District Court denied respondent's motion to suppress, citing a number of facts that gave Stoddard reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle. The Ninth Circuit reversed. In its view, fact-specific weighing of circumstances or other multifactor tests introduced uncertainty and unpredictability into the Fourth Amendment analysis, making it necessary to clearly delimit the factors that an officer may consider in making stops such as this one. It then held that several factors relied upon by the District Court carried little or no weight in the reasonable-suspicion calculus and that the remaining factors were not enough to render the stop permissible.


Considering the totality of the circumstances and giving due weight to the factual inferences drawn by Stoddard and the District Court Judge, Stoddard had reasonable suspicion to believe that respondent was engaged in illegal activity. Because the "balance between the public interest and the individual's right to personal security," United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878, tilts in favor of a standard less than probable cause in brief investigatory stops of persons or vehicles, the Fourth Amendment is satisfied if the officer's action is supported by reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity "may be afoot," United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7. In making reasonable suspicion determinations, reviewing courts must look at the "totality of the circumstances" of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a "particularized and objective basis" for suspecting legal wrong doing. See, e. g., United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-418. This process allows officers to draw on their own experiences and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available. Id., at 418. The Ninth Circuit's methodology departs sharply from these teachings, and it reached the wrong result in this case. Its evaluation and rejection of certain factors in isolation from each other does not take into account the "totality of the circumstances,"

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as this Court's cases have understood that phrase. The court appeared to believe that each of Stoddard's observations that was by itself susceptible to an innocent explanation was entitled to no weight. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, however, precludes this sort of divide-and-conquer analysis. And the court's view that it was necessary to clearly delimit an officer's consideration of certain factors to reduce troubling uncertainty also runs counter to this Court's cases and underestimates the reasonable-suspicion standard's usefulness in guiding officers in the field. The de novo standard for appellate review of reasonable suspicion determinations has, inter alia, a tendency to unify precedent and a capacity to provide law enforcement officers the tools to reach the correct decision beforehand. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 691, 697-698. The Ninth Circuit's approach would seriously undermine the "totality of the circumstances" principle governing the existence vel non of "reasonable suspicion." Here, it was reasonable for Stoddard to infer from his observations, his vehicle registration check, and his border patrol experience that respondent had set out on a route used by drug smugglers and that he intended to pass through the area during a border patrol shift change; and Stoddard's assessment of the reactions of respondent and his passengers was entitled to some weight. Although each of the factors alone is susceptible to innocent explanation, and some factors are more probative than others, taken together, they sufficed to form a particularized and objective basis for stopping the vehicle. Pp. 273-278.

232 F.3d 1241, reversed and remanded.

Rehnquist, C. J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Scalia, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 278.

Austin C. Schlick argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Olson, Assistant Attorney General Chertoff, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and Deborah Watson.

Victoria A. Brambl argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief was Fredric F. Kay.[*]

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Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent Ralph Arvizu was stopped by a border patrol agent while driving on an unpaved road in a remote area of southeastern Arizona. A search of his vehicle turned up more than 100 pounds of marijuana. The District Court for the District of Arizona denied respondent's motion to suppress, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. In the course of its opinion, it categorized certain factors relied upon by the District Court as simply out of bounds in deciding whether there was "reasonable suspicion" for the stop. We hold that the Court of Appeals' methodology was contrary to our prior decisions and that it reached the wrong result in this case.

On an afternoon in January 1998, Agent Clinton Stoddard was working at a border patrol checkpoint along U.S. Highway 191 approximately 30 miles north of Douglas, Arizona. App. 22, 24. See Appendix, infra (containing a map of the area noting the location of the checkpoint and other points important to this case). Douglas has a population of about 13,000 and is situated on the United States-Mexico border in the southeastern part of the State. Only two highways lead north from Douglas. See App. 157. Highway 191 leads north to Interstate 10, which passes through Tucson and Phoenix. State Highway 80 heads northeast through less populated areas toward New Mexico, skirting south and east of the portion of the Coronado National Forest that lies approximately 20 miles northeast of Douglas.[1]

The checkpoint is located at the intersection of 191 and Rucker Canyon Road, an unpaved east-west road that connects 191 and the Coronado National Forest. When the checkpoint is operational, border patrol agents stop the traffic

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on 191 as part of a coordinated effort to stem the flow of illegal immigration and smuggling across the international border. See id., at 20-21. Agents use roving patrols to apprehend smugglers trying to circumvent the checkpoint by taking the backroads, including those roads through the sparsely populated area between Douglas and the national forest. Id., at 21-22, 26, 80. Magnetic sensors, or "intrusion devices," facilitate agents' efforts in patrolling these areas. See id., at 25. Directionally sensitive, the sensors signal the passage of traffic that would be consistent with smuggling activities. Ibid.; Tr. of Oral Arg. 23-24.

Sensors are located along the only other northbound road from Douglas besides Highways 191 and 80: Leslie Canyon Road. Leslie Canyon Road runs roughly parallel to 191, about halfway between 191 and the border of the Coronado National Forest, and ends when it intersects Rucker Canyon Road. It is unpaved beyond the 10-mile stretch leading out of Douglas and is very rarely traveled except for use by local ranchers and forest service personnel. App. 26. Smugglers commonly try to avoid the 191 checkpoint by heading west on Rucker Canyon Road from Leslie Canyon Road and thence to Kuykendall Cutoff Road, a primitive dirt road that leads north approximately 12 miles east of 191. Id., at 29-30. From there, they can gain access to Tucson and Phoenix. Id., at 30.

Around 2:15 p.m., Stoddard received a report via Douglas radio that a Leslie Canyon Road sensor had been triggered. Id., at 24. This was significant to Stoddard for two reasons. First, it suggested to him that a vehicle might be trying to circumvent the checkpoint. Id., at 27. Second, the timing coincided with the point when agents begin heading back to the checkpoint for a shift change, which leaves the area unpatrolled. Id., at 26, 47. Stoddard knew that alien smugglers did extensive scouting and seemed to be most active when agents were en route back to the checkpoint. Another border patrol agent told Stoddard that the same

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sensor had gone off several weeks before and that he had apprehended a minivan using the same route and witnessed the occupants throwing bundles of marijuana out the door. Id., at 27.

Stoddard drove eastbound on Rucker Canyon Road to investigate. As he did so, he received another radio report of sensor activity. Id., at 29. It indicated that the vehicle that had triggered the first sensor was heading westbound on Rucker Canyon Road. He continued east, passing Kuy kendall Cutoff Road. He saw the dust trail of an approaching vehicle about a half mile away. Id., at 31. Stoddard had not seen any other vehicles and, based on the timing, believed that this was the one that had tripped the sensors. Id., at 31-32. He pulled off to the side of the road at a slight slant so he could get a good look at the oncoming vehicle as it passed by. Id., at 32.

It was a minivan, a type of automobile that Stoddard knew smugglers used. Id., at 33. As it approached, it slowed dramatically, from about 50-55 to 25-30 miles per hour. Id., at 32, 57. He saw five occupants inside. An adult man was driving, an adult woman sat in the front passenger seat, and three children were in the back. Id., at 33-34. The driver appeared stiff and his posture very rigid. He did not look at Stoddard and seemed to be trying to pretend that Stoddard was not there. Id., at 33. Stoddard thought this suspicious...

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