United States v. Sifuentes v. United States

Decision Date06 July 1976
Docket NumberNos. 74-1560,75-5387,MARTINEZ-FUERTE,s. 74-1560
Citation428 U.S. 543,49 L.Ed.2d 1116,96 S.Ct. 3074
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Amadoet al. Rodolfo SIFUENTES, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

1. The Border Patrol's routine stopping of a vehicle at a permanent checkpoint located on a major highway away from the Mexican border for brief questioning of the vehicle's occupants is consistent with the Fourth Amendment, and the stops and questioning may be made at reasonably located checkpoints in the absence of any individualized suspicion that the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens. Pp. 556-564.

(a) To require that such stops always be based on reasonable suspicion would be impractical because the flow of traffic tends to be too heavy to allow the particularized study of a given car necessary to identify it as a possible carrier of illegal aliens. Such a requirement also would largely eliminate any deterrent to the conduct of well-disguised smuggling operations, even though smugglers are known to use these highways regularly. P. 556-557.

(b) While the need to make routine checkpoint stops is great, the consequent intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests is quite limited, the interference with legitimate traffic being minimal and checkpoint operations involving less discretionary enforcement activity than roving-patrol stops. Pp. 557-560.

(c) Under the circumstances of these checkpoint stops, which do not involve searches, the Government or public interest in making such stops outweighs the constitutionally protected interest of the private citizen. Pp. 560-562.

(d) With respect to the checkpoint involved in No. 74-1560, it is constitutional to refer motorists selectively to a secondary inspection area for limited inquiry on the basis of criteria that would not sustain a roving-patrol stop, since the intrusion is sufficiently minimal that no particularized reason need exist to justify it. P. 563-564.

2. Operation of a fixed checkpoint need not be authorized in advance by a judicial warrant. Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 87 S.Ct. 1727, 18 L.Ed.2d 930, distinguished. The visible manifestations of the field officers' authority at a checkpoint provide assurances to motorists that the officers are acting lawfully. Moreover, the purpose of a warrant in preventing hindsight from coloring the evaluation of the reasonableness of a search or seizure is inapplicable here, since the reasonableness of checkpoint stops turns on factors such as the checkpoint's location and method of operation. These factors are not susceptible of the distortion of hindsight, and will be open to post-stop review notwithstanding the absence of a warrant. Nor is the purpose of a warrant in substituting a magistrate's judgment for that of the searching or seizing officer applicable, since the need for this is reduced when the decision to "seize" is not entirely in the hands of the field officer and deference is to be given to the administrative decisions of higher ranking officials in selecting the checkpoint locations. Pp. 564-566.

No. 74-1560, 514 F.2d 308, reversed and remanded; No. 75-5387, affirmed.

Ballard Bennett, Weslaco, Tex., for petitioner in No. 75-5387, by Mark L. Evans, Washington, D. C., for petitioner in No. 74-1560 and respondent in No. 75-5387.

Charles M. Sevilla, San Diego, Cal., for respondent in No. 75-1560.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases involve criminal prosecutions for offenses relating to the transportation of illegal Mexican aliens. Each defendant was arrested at a permanent checkpoint operated by the Border Patrol away from the international border with Mexico, and each sought the exclusion of certain evidence on the ground that the operation of the checkpoint was incompatible with the Fourth Amendment. In each instance whether the Fourth Amendment was violated turns primarily on whether a vehicle may be stopped at a fixed checkpoint for brief questioning of its occupants even though there is no reason to believe the particular vehicle contains illegal aliens. We reserved this question last Term in United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891, 897 n. 3, 95 S.Ct. 2585, 2589, 45 L.Ed.2d 623 (1975). We hold today that such stops are consistent with the Fourth Amendment. We also hold that the operation of a fixed checkpoint need not be authorized in advance by a judicial warrant.


The respondents in No. 74-1560 are defendants in three separate prosecutions resulting from arrests made on three different occasions at the permanent immigration checkpoint on Interstate 5 near San Clemente, Cal. Interstate 5 is the principal highway between San Diego and Los Angeles, and the San Clemente checkpoint is 66 road miles north of the Mexican border. We previously have described the checkpoint as follows:

" 'Approximately one mile south of the checkpoint is a large black on yellow sign with flashing yellow lights over the highway stating "ALL VEHICLES, STOP AHEAD, 1 MILE." Three-quarters of a mile further north are two black on yellow signs suspended over the highway with flashing lights stating "WATCH FOR BRAKE LIGHTS." At the checkpoint, which is also the location of a State of California weighing station, are two large signs with flashing red lights suspended over the highway. These signs each state "STOP HERE U. S. OFFICERS." Placed on the highway are a number of orange traffic cones funneling traffic into two lanes where a Border Patrol agent in full dress uniform, standing behind a white on red "STOP" sign checks traffic. Blocking traffic in the unused lanes are official U. S. Border Patrol vehicles with flashing red lights. In addition, there is a permanent building which houses the Border Patrol office and temporary detention facilities. There are also floodlights for nighttime operation.' " United States v. Ortiz, supra, at 893, 95 S.Ct., at 2587, quoting United States v. Baca, 368 F.Supp. 398, 410-411 (SD Cal.1973).

The "point" agent standing between the two lanes of traffic visually screens all northbound vehicles, which the checkpoint brings to a virtual, if not a complete, halt.1 Most motorists are allowed to resume their progress without any oral inquiry or close visual examination. In a relatively small number of cases the "point" agent will conclude that further inquiry is in order. He directs these cars to a secondary inspection area, where their occupants are asked about their citizenship and immigration status. The Government informs us that at San Clemente the average length of an investigation in the secondary inspection area is three to five minutes. Brief for United States 53. A direction to stop in the secondary inspection area could be based on something suspicious about a particular car passing through the checkpoint, but the Government concedes that none of the three stops at issue in No. 74-1560 was based on any articulable suspicion. During the period when these stops were made, the checkpoint was operating under a magistrate's "warrant of inspection," which authorized the Border Patrol to conduct a routine-stop operation at the San Clemente location.2

We turn now to the particulars of the stops involved in No. 74-1560, and the procedural history of the case. Respondent Amado Martinez-Fuerte approached the checkpoint driving a vehicle containing two female passengers. The women were illegal Mexican aliens who had entered the United States at the San Ysidro port of entry by using false papers and rendezvoused with Martinez-Fuerte in San Diego to be transported northward. At the checkpoint their car was directed to the secondary inspection area. Martinez-Fuerte produced documents showing him to be a lawful resident alien, but his passengers admitted being present in the country unlawfully. He was charged, Inter alia, with two counts of illegally transporting aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2). He moved before trial to suppress all evidence stemming from the stop on the ground that the operation of the checkpoint was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.3 The motion to suppress was denied, and he was convicted on both counts after a jury trial.

Respondent Jose Jiminez-Garcia attempted to pass through the checkpoint while driving a car containing one passenger. He had picked the passenger up by prearrangement in San Ysidro after the latter had been smuggled across the border. Questioning at the secondary inspection area revealed the illegal status of the passenger, and Jiminez-Garcia was charged in two counts with illegally trans- porting an alien, 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2), and conspiring to commit that offense, 18 U.S.C. § 371. His motion to suppress the evidence derived from the stop was granted.

Respondents Raymond Guillen and Fernando Medrano-Barragan approached the checkpoint with Guillen driving and Medrano-Barragan and his wife as passengers. Questioning at the secondary inspection area revealed that Medrano-Barragan and his wife were illegal aliens. A subsequent search of the car uncovered three other illegal aliens in the trunk. Medrano-Barragan had led the other aliens across the border at the beach near Tijuana, Mexico, where they rendezvoused with Guillen, a United States citizen. Guillen and Medrano-Barragan were jointly indicted on four counts of illegally transporting aliens, 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2), four counts of inducing the illegal entry of aliens, § 1324(a)(4), and one conspiracy count, 18 U.S.C. § 371. The District Court granted the defendants' motion to suppress.

Martinez-Fuerte appealed his conviction, and the Government appealed the granting of the motions to suppress in the respective prosecutions of Jiminez-Garcia and of Guillen and Medrano-Barragan.4 The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit consolidated the three appeals, which presented the common question whether routine stops and interrogations at checkpoints are consistent with the Fourth Amendment.5 The Court of...

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