United States v. Martinez-Fuerte - 428 U.S. 543 (1976)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976)
United States v. Martinez-Fuerte
Argued April 26, 1976
Decided July 6, 1976*
428 U.S. 543
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
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. 428 U. S. 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. Pp. 428 U. S. 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. 428 U. S. 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. 428 U. S. 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. Pp. 428 U. S. 563-564.
2. Operation of a fixed checkpoint need not be authorized in advance by a judicial warrant. Camara v. Municipal Court, 387
Page 428 U. S. 544
U.S. 523, 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. 428 U. S. 564-566.
No. 74-1560, 514 F.2d 308, reversed and remanded; No. 75-5387, affirmed.
POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 428 U. S. 567.
Page 428 U. S. 545
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, 422 U. S. 897 n. 3 (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
Page 428 U. S. 546
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 lashing 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 422 U. S. 893, 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 north-bound vehicles, which the checkpoint brings to a virtual, if not a complete, halt. [Footnote 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
Page 428 U. S. 547
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. [Footnote 2]