United States v. Sharpe, 83-529

Decision Date20 March 1985
Docket NumberNo. 83-529,83-529
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner v. William Harris SHARPE and Donald Davis Savage
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, while patrolling a highway in an area under surveillance for suspected drug trafficking, noticed an apparently overloaded pickup truck with an attached camper traveling in tandem with a Pontiac. Respondent Savage was driving the truck, and respondent Sharpe was driving the Pontiac. After following the two vehicles for about 20 miles, the agent decided to make an "investigative stop" and radioed the South Carolina State Highway Patrol for assistance. An officer responded, and he and the DEA agent continued to follow the two vehicles. When they attempted to stop the vehicles, the Pontiac pulled over to the side of the road, but the truck continued on, pursued by the state officer. After identifying himself and obtaining identification from Sharpe, the DEA agent attempted to radio the State Highway Patrol officer. The DEA agent was unable to contact the state officer to see if he had stopped the Pontiac, so he radioed the local police for help. In the meantime, the state officer had stopped the truck, questioned Savage, and told him that he would be held until the DEA agent arrived. The agent, who had left the local police with the Pontiac, arrived at the scene approximately 15 minutes after the truck had been stopped. After confirming his suspicion that the truck was overloaded and upon smelling marihuana, the agent opened the rear of the camper without Savage's permission and observed a number of burlap-wrapped bales resembling bales of marihuana that the agent had seen in previous investigations. The agent then placed Savage under arrest and, returning to the Pontiac, also arrested Sharpe. Chemical tests later showed that the bales contained marihuana. Respondents were charged with federal drug offenses, and, after the District Court denied their motion to suppress the contraband, were convicted. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that because the investigative stops failed to meet the Fourth Amendment's requirement of brevity governing detentions on less than probable cause, the marihuana should have been suppressed as the fruit of unlawful seizures.

Held: The detention of Savage clearly met the Fourth Amendment's standard of reasonableness. Pp. 682-688.

(a) In evaluating the reasonableness of an investigative stop, this Court examines "whether the officer's action was justified at its inception, and whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1879, 20 L.Ed.2d 889. As to the first part of the inquiry, the Court of Appeals assumed that the officers had an articulable and reasonable suspicion that respondents were engaged in marihuana trafficking, and the record abundantly supports that assumption, given the circumstances when the officers attempted to stop the Pontiac and the truck. As to the second part of the inquiry, while the brevity of an investigative detention is an important factor in determining whether the detention is unreasonable, courts must also consider the purposes to be served by the stop as well as the time reasonably needed to effectuate those purposes. The Court of Appeals' decision would effectively establish a per se rule that a 20-minute detention is too long to be justified under the Terry doctrine. Such a result is clearly and fundamentally at odds with this Court's approach in this area. Pp. 682-686.

(b) In assessing whether a detention is too long in duration to be justified as an investigative stop, it is appropriate to examine whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant. Here, the DEA agent diligently pursued his investigation, and clearly no delay unnecessary to the investigation was involved. Pp. 686-688.

712 F.2d 65 (CA4 1983), reversed and remanded.

Andrew L. Frey, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Mark J. Kadish, Atlanta, Ga., as amicus curiae in support of the judgment below, by special order of the Court, for the respondents.

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether an individual reasonably suspected of engaging in criminal activity may be detained for a period of 20 minutes, when the detention is necessary for law enforcement officers to conduct a limited investigation of the suspected criminal activity.

I
A.

On the morning of June 9, 1978, Agent Cooke of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was on patrol in an unmarked vehicle on a coastal road near Sunset Beach, North Carolina, an area under surveillance for suspected drug trafficking. At approximately 6:30 a.m., Cooke noticed a blue pickup truck with an attached camper shell traveling on the highway in tandem with a blue Pontiac Bonneville. Respondent Savage was driving the pickup, and respondent Sharpe was driving the Pontiac. The Pontiac also carried a passenger, Davis, the charges against whom were later dropped. Observing that the truck was riding low in the rear and that the camper did not bounce or sway appreciably when the truck drove over bumps or around curves, Agent Cooke concluded that it was heavily loaded. A quilted material covered the rear and side windows of the camper.

Cooke's suspicions were sufficiently aroused to follow the two vehicles for approximately 20 miles as they proceeded south into South Carolina. He then decided to make an "investigative stop" and radioed the State Highway Patrol for assistance. Officer Thrasher, driving a marked patrol car, responded to the call. Almost immediately after Thrasher caught up with the procession, the Pontiac and the pickup turned off the highway and onto a campground road.1 Cooke and Thrasher followed the two vehicles as the latter drove along the road at 55 to 60 miles an hour, exceeding the speed limit of 35 miles an hour. The road eventually looped back to the highway, onto which Savage and Sharpe turned and continued to drive south.

At this point, all four vehicles were in the middle lane of the three right-hand lanes of the highway. Agent Cooke asked Officer Thrasher to signal both vehicles to stop. Thrasher pulled alongside the Pontiac, which was in the lead, turned on his flashing light, and motioned for the driver of the Pontiac to stop. As Sharpe moved the Pontiac into the right lane, the pickup truck cut between the Pontiac and Thrasher's patrol car, nearly hitting the patrol car, and continued down the highway. Thrasher pursued the truck while Cooke pulled up behind the Pontiac.

Cooke approached the Pontiac and identified himself. He requested identification, and Sharpe produced a Georgia driver's license bearing the name of Raymond J. Pavlovich. Cooke then attempted to radio Thrasher to determine whether he had been successful in stopping the pickup truck, but he was unable to make contact for several minutes, apparently because Thrasher was not in his patrol car. Cooke radioed the local police for assistance, and two officers from the Myrtle Beach Police Department arrived about 10 minutes later. Asking the two officers to "maintain the situation," Cooke left to join Thrasher.

In the meantime, Thrasher had stopped the pickup truck about one-half mile down the road. After stopping the truck, Thrasher had approached it with his revolver drawn, ordered the driver, Savage, to get out and assume a "spread eagled" position against the side of the truck, and patted him down. Thrasher then holstered his gun and asked Savage for his driver's license and the truck's vehicle registration. Savage produced his own Florida driver's license and a bill of sale for the truck bearing the name of Pavlovich. In response to questions from Thrasher concerning the ownership of the truck, Savage said that the truck belonged to a friend and that he was taking it to have its shock absorbers repaired. When Thrasher told Savage that he would be held until the arrival of Cooke, whom Thrasher identified as a DEA agent, Savage became nervous, said that he wanted to leave, and requested the return of his driver's license. Thrasher replied that Savage was not free to leave at that time.

Agent Cooke arrived at the scene approximately 15 minutes after the truck had been stopped. Thrasher handed Cooke Savage's license and the bill of sale for the truck; Cooke noted that the bill of sale bore the same name as Sharpe's license. Cooke identified himself to Savage as a DEA agent and said that he thought the truck was loaded with marihuana. Cooke twice sought permission to search the camper, but Savage declined to give it, explaining that he was not the owner of the truck. Cooke then stepped on the rear of the truck and, observing that it did not sink any lower, confirmed his suspicion that it was probably overloaded. He put his nose against the rear window, which was covered from the inside, and reported that he could smell marihuana. Without seeking Savage's permission, Cooke removed the keys from the ignition, opened the rear of the camper, and observed a large number of burlap-wrapped bales resembling bales of marihuana that Cooke had seen in previous investigations. Agent Cooke then placed Savage under arrest and left him with Thrasher.

Cooke returned to the Pontiac and arrested Sharpe and Davis. Approximately 30 to 40 minutes had elapsed between the time Cooke stopped the Pontiac and the time he returned to arrest Sharpe and Davis. Cooke assembled the various parties and vehicles and led them to the Myrtle Beach police station. That evening, DEA agents took the truck to the Federal Building in Charleston, South Carolina. Several days later, Cooke supervised the unloading of the truck, which contained 43 bales...

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