Schneckloth v. Bustamonte 8212 732

Decision Date29 May 1973
Docket NumberNo. 71,71
PartiesMerle R. SCHNECKLOTH, Superintendent, California Conservation Center, Petitioner, v. Robert Clyde BUSTAMONTE. —732
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

During the course of a consent search of a car that had been stopped by officers for traffic violations, evidence was discovered that was used to convict respondent of unlawfully possessing a check. In a habeas corpus proceeding, the Court of Appeals, reversing the District Court, held that the prosecution had failed to prove that consent to the search had been made with the understanding that it could freely be withheld. Held: When the subject of a search is not in custody and the State would justify a search on the basis of his consent, the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments require that it demonstrate that the consent was in fact voluntary; voluntariness is to be determined from the totality of the surrounding circumstances. While knowledge of a right to refuse consent is a factor to be taken into account, the State need not prove that the one giving permission to search knew that he had a right to withhold his consent. Pp. 2045—2059.

448 F.2d 699, reversed.

Robert R. Granucci, San Francisco, Cal., for petitioner.

Stuart P. Tobisman, Los Angeles, Cal., for the respondent, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

It is well settled under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments that a search conducted without a warrant issued upon probable cause is 'per se unreasonable . . . subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.' Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 514, 19 L.Ed.2d 576; Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 454—455, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 2031—2032, 29 L.Ed.2d 564; Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 51, 90 S.Ct. 1975, 1981, 26 L.Ed.2d 419. It is equally well settled that one of the specifically established exceptions to the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause is a search that is conducted pursuant to consent. Davis v. United States, 328 U.S. 582, 593—594, 66 S.Ct. 1256, 1261—1262, 90 L.Ed. 1453; Zap v. United States, 328 U.S. 624, 630, 66 S.Ct. 1277, 1280, 90 L.Ed. 1477. The constitutional question in the present case concerns the definition of 'consent' in this Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment context.


The respondent was brought to trial in a California court upon a charge of possessing a check with intent to defraud.1 He moved to suppress the introduction of certain material as evidence against him on the ground that the material had been acquired through an unconstitutional search and seizure. In response to the motion, the trial judge conducted an evidentiary hearing where it was established that the material in question had been acquired by the State under the following circumstances:

While on routine patrol in Sunnyvale, California, at approximately 2:40 in the morning, Police Officer James Rand stopped an automobile when he observed that one headlight and its license plate light were burned out. Six men were in the vehicle. Joe Alcala and the respondent, Robert Bustamonte, were in the front seat with Joe Gonzales, the driver. Three older men were seated in the rear. When, in response to the policeman's question, Gonzales could not produce a driver's license, Officer Rand asked if any of the other five had any evidence of identification. Only Alcala produced a license, and he explained that the car was his brother's. After the six occupants had stepped out of the car at the officer's request and after two additional policemen had arrived, Officer Rand asked Alcala if he could search the car. Alcala replied, 'Sure, go ahead.' Prior to the search no one was threatened with arrest and, according to Officer Rand's uncontradicted testimony, it 'was all very congenial at this time.' Gonzales testified that Alcala actually helped in the search of the car, by opening the trunk and glove compartment. In Gonzales' words: '(T)he police officer asked Joe (Alcala), he goes, 'Does the trunk open?' And Joe said, 'Yes.' He went to the car and got the keys and opened up the trunk.' Wadded up under the left rear seat, the police officers found three checks that had previously been stolen from a car wash.

The trial judge denied the motion to suppress, and the checks in question were admitted in evidence at Bustamonte's trial. On the basis of this and other evidence he was convicted, and the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District affirmed the convic- tion. 270 Cal.App.2d 648, 76 Cal.Rptr. 17. In agreeing that the search and seizure were constitutionally valid, the appellate court applied the standard earlier formulated by the Supreme Court of California in an opinion by then Justice Traynor: 'Whether in a particular case an apparent consent was in fact voluntarily given or was in submission to an express or implied assertion of authority, is a question of fact to be determined in the light of all the circumstances.' People v. Michael, 45 Cal.2d 751, 753, 290 P.2d 852, 854. The appellate court found that '(i)n the instant case the prosecution met the necessary burden of showing consent . . . since there were clearly circumstances from which the trial court could ascertain that consent had been freely given without coercion or submission to authority. Not only officer Rand, but Gonzales, the driver of the automobile, testified that Alcala's assent to the search of his brother's automobile was freely, even casually given. At the time of the request to search the automobile the atmosphere, according to Rand, was 'congenital' and there has been no discussion of any crime. As noted, Gonzales said Alcala even attempted to aid in the search.' 270 Cal.App.2d, at 652, 76 Cal.Rptr., at 20. The California Supreme Court denied review.2

Thereafter, the respondent sought a writ of habeas corpus in a federal district court. It was denied.3 On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, relying on its prior decisions in Cipres v. United States, 343 F.2d 95, and Schoepflin v. United States, 391 F.2d 390, set aside the District Court's order. 448 F.2d 699. The appellate court reasoned that a consent was a waiver of a person's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and that the State was under an obligation to demon- strate, not only that the consent had been uncoerced, but that it had been given with an understanding that it could be freely and effectively withhold. Consent could not be found, the court held, solely from the absence of coercion and a verbal expression of assent. Since the District Court had not determined that Alcala had known that his consent could have been withheld and that he could have refused to have his vehicle searched, the Court of Appeals vacated the order denying the writ and remanded the case for further proceedings. We granted certiorari to determine whether the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments require the showing thought necessary by the Court of Appeals. 405 U.S. 953, 92 S.Ct. 1168, 31 L.Ed.2d 230.


It is important to make it clear at the outset what is not involved in this case. The respondent concedes that a search conducted pursuant to a valid consent is constitutionally permissible. In Katz v. United States, 389 U.S., at 358, 88 S.Ct., at 515, and more recently in Vale v. Louisiana, 399 U.S. 30, 35, 90 S.Ct. 1969, 1972, 26 L.Ed.2d 409, we recognized that a search authorized by consent is wholly valid. See also Davis v. United States, 328 U.S., at 593—594, 66 S.Ct., at 1261—1262; Zap v. United States, 328 U.S., at 630, 66 S.Ct., at 1280.4 And similarly the State concedes that '(w)hen a prosecutor seeks to rely upon consent to justify the lawfulness of a search, he has the burden of proving that the consent was, in fact, freedly and voluntarily given.' Bumper v. North Corolina, 391 U.S. 543, 548, 88 S.Ct. 1788, 1792, 20 L.Ed.2d 797. See also Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 68 S.Ct. 367, 92 L.Ed. 436; Amos v. United States, 255 U.S. 313, 41 S.Ct. 266, 65 L.Ed. 654.

The precise question in this case, then, is what must the prosecution prove to demonstrate that a consent was 'voluntarily' given. And upon that question there is a square conflict of views between the state and federal courts that have reviewed the search involved in the case before us. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that it is an essential part of the State's initial burden to prove that a person knows he has a right to refuse consent. The California courts have followed the rule that voluntariness is a question of fact to be determined from the totality of all the circumstances, and that the state of a defendant's knowledge is only one factor to be taken into account in assessing the voluntariness of a consent. See, e.g., People v. Tremayne, 20 Cal.App.3d 1006, 98 Cal.Rptr. 193; People v. Roberts, 246 Cal.App.2d 715, 55 Cal.Rptr. 62.


The most extensive judicial exposition of the meaning of 'voluntariness' has been developed in those cases in which the Court has had to determine the 'voluntariness' of a defendant's confession for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment. Almost 40 years ago, in Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461, 80 L.Ed. 682, the Court held that a criminal conviction based upon a confession obtained by brutality and violence was constitutionally invalid under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In some 30 different cases decided during the era that intervened between Brown and Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478, 84 S.Ct. 1758, 12 L.Ed.2d 977, the Court was faced with the necessity of determining whether in fact the confessions in issue had been 'voluntarily' given.5 It is to that body of case law to which we turn for initial guidance on the meaning of 'voluntariness' in the present context.6

Those cases yield no talismanic definition of 'voluntariness,' mechanically applicable to the host...

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