United States v. Flores-Montano

United States v. Flores-Montano Case Brief

United States Supreme Court
541 U.S. 149 (2004)

ISSUE: Is disassembly of a vehicle's gas tank in order to search it for secreted contraband unreasonable if the border patrol agents had not reasonable suspicion that it contained contraband?
HOLDING: No.
FACTS:
  • D attempted to enter the US at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, and a customs officer did a search of the vehicle and requested D to exit the car
  • The officer then tapped the gas tank and found that it sounded solid, so he ordered a mechanic to remove the gas tank
  • Inside, he found 37 kg of marijuana bricks
PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
  • Indicted on one count of unlawfully importing marijuana and one count of possession w/ intent to distribute
  • Dist. Ct. granted motion to suppress holding that reasonable suspicion was necessary, which the govt. conceded it didn't have
  • Ct. App. affirmed
REASONING:
  • Vehicles different than people: Complex balancing tests to determine what is a "routine" search of a vehicle, as opposed to a more "intrusive" search of a person, have no place in border searches of vehicles
  • Strong govt. interest: US, as sovereign, has the inherent authority to protect, and a paramount interest in protecting, its territorial integrity
    • Govt.'s interest in prevented the entry of unwanted persons and effects is at its zenith at the international border
    • Searches made at the border are reasonable simply because they occur at the border
  • Search of gas tank OK: Search of a gas tank is no more an invasion of privacy than a search of the passenger compartment
    • Expectations of privacy are less at the border
    • If damage occurs, the owner might be entitled to recovery
COMMENTS:
  • Searches done at the border are reasonable by the very fact that they occur at the border. Searches that are not justified at the border without some additional criteria (warrant, probable cause) are body cavity searches, strip searches, and involuntary X-rays.
  • Move away from the border, however, and many searches that would have been justified are no longer so.

 

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