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United States v. Mendenhall - Case Brief
446 U.S. 544, 100 S. Ct. 1870, 64 L. Ed. 2d 497

Keyed to Tomkovicz 6th

United States Supreme Court, 1980

The D (Sylvia Mendenhall) arrived at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a commercial airline flight from Los Angeles early in the morning on February 10, 1976. As D disembarked from the airplane, she was observed by two agents of the DEA, who were present at the airport for the purpose of detecting unlawful traffic in narcotics. After observing the D's conduct, which appeared to the agents to be characteristic of persons unlawfully carrying narcotics, the agents approached her as she was walking through the concourse, identified themselves as federal agents, and asked to see her identification and airline ticket. The D produced her driver's license, which was in the name of Sylvia Mendenhall. The airline ticket was issued in the name of “Annette Ford.” When asked, the D stated that she “just felt like using that name.” After further questioning, the D indicated that she had been in California only two days. Agent Anderson then specifically identified himself as a federal narcotics agent and, testified that the D “became quite shaken, extremely nervous. She had a hard time speaking.

Footnote 1: The agent testified that the D's behavior fit the so-called “drug courier profile” an informally compiled characteristics of persons carrying illicit drugs. Here, the agents thought it relevant that (1) the D was arriving on a flight from L.A., a city believed by the agents to be the place of origin for much of the heroin brought to Detroit; (2) the D was the last person to leave the plane, “appeared to be very nervous,” and “completely scanned the whole area where the agents were standing”; (3) after leaving the plane the D proceeded past the baggage area without claiming any luggage; and (4) the D changed airlines for her flight out of Detroit.

After returning the airline ticket and driver's license to her, Agent Anderson asked the D if she would accompany him to the airport DEA office for further questions. She did so, although the record does not indicate a verbal response to the request. The office, which was located up one flight of stairs about 50 feet from where the D had first been approached, consisted of a reception area adjoined by three other rooms. At the office the agent asked the D if she would allow a search of her person and handbag and told her that she had the right to decline the search if she desired. She responded: “Go ahead.” She then handed Agent Anderson her purse, which contained a receipt for an airline ticket that had been issued to “F. Bush” three days earlier for a flight from Pittsburgh through Chicago to Los Angeles. The agent asked whether this was the ticket that she had used for her flight to California, and the D stated that it was.

A female police officer conducted the search of the D's person. She asked the agents if the D had consented to be searched. The agents said that she had, and the D followed the policewoman into a private room. There the policewoman again asked the D if she consented to the search, and the D replied that she did. The policewoman explained that the search would require that the D remove her clothing. The D stated that she had a plane to catch and was assured by the policewoman that if she were carrying no narcotics, there would be no problem. The D then began to disrobe without further comment. As the D removed her clothing, she took from her undergarments two small packages, one of which appeared to contain heroin, and handed both to the policewoman. The agents then arrested the D for possessing heroin.   

Procedural History:
The COA concluded that the D's apparent consent to the search was in fact not voluntarily given and was in any event the product of earlier official conduct violative of the Fourth Amendment.

Law Issue:
Whether a seizure occurs when a reasonable person believes they are not free to leave?

Factual Issue:
Whether a seizure had occurred where federal agents approached Ms. Mendenhall while walking through the airport and requested her identification?

A person is “seized” only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained.  The court concluded that a person has been “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave. Examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled.
Here, no “seizure” of the D occurred. The events took place in the public concourse. The agents wore no uniforms and displayed no weapons. They did not summon the D to their presence, but instead approached her and identified themselves as federal agents. They requested, but did not demand to see the D's identification and ticket. The D was not seized simply because the agents approached her, asked her if she would show them her ticket and identification, and posed to her a few questions. Nothing in the record suggested that the D had any objective reason to believe that she was not free to end the conversation in the concourse and proceed on her way, and for that reason the court concluded that the agents' initial approach to her was not a seizure.

The court’s conclusion that no seizure occurred was not affected by the fact that the D was not expressly told by the agents that she was free to decline to cooperate with their inquiry, for the voluntariness of her responses does not depend upon her having been so informed. The court rejected the argument that the only inference to be drawn from the fact that the D acted in a manner so contrary to her self-interest is that she was compelled to answer the agents' questions. The court stated that it may happen that a person makes statements to law enforcement officials that he later regrets, but the issue in such cases is not whether the statement was self-protective, but rather whether it was made voluntarily.

Although the court concluded that the initial encounter between the DEA agents and the D on the concourse at the Detroit Airport did not constitute an unlawful seizure, it is still arguable that the D's Fourth Amendment protections were violated when she went from the concourse to the DEA office.

Whether the D's consent to accompany the agents was in fact voluntary or was the product of duress or coercion, express or implied, must be determined by the totality of all the circumstances. The government has the burden of proving. The D did not testify at the hearing. The Government's evidence showed that the D was not told that she had to go to the office, but was simply asked if she would accompany the officers. There were neither threats nor any show of force. The D had been questioned only briefly, and her ticket and identification were returned to her before she was asked to accompany the officers.

It was argued that the incident would reasonably have appeared coercive to the D, who was 22 years old and had not been graduated from high school. It is additionally suggested that the D, a female and a Negro, may have felt unusually threatened by the officers, who were white males. The court held the totality of the evidence in this case was plainly adequate to support the TC's finding that the D voluntarily consented to accompany the officers to the DEA office. Because the search of the D's person was not preceded by an impermissible seizure of her person, it couldn’t be contended that her apparent consent to the subsequent search was infected by an unlawful detention. The TC decision was based on that the D was 22 years old and had an 11th-grade education, and she was twice expressly told that she was free to decline to consent to the search.

Law Issue: Yes

Factual Issue: No

Reversed and remanded

A person has been “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.

Examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be 1) the threatening presence of several officers, 2) the display of a weapon by an officer, 3) some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or 4) the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled.

Dissent or Concurrence:
The D undoubtedly was “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when the agents escorted her from the public area of the terminal to the DEA office for questioning and a strip-search of her person. In Dunaway v. New York, the court held that a person who accompanied police officers to a police station for purposes of interrogation undoubtedly “was ‘seized’ in the Fourth Amendment sense,” even though “he was not told he was under arrest.” They found it significant that the suspect was taken to a police station, “was never informed that he was ‘free to go,’ ” and “would have been physically restrained if he had refused to accompany the officers or had tried to escape their custody.” Like the “seizure” in Dunaway, the nature of the intrusion to which the D was subjected when she was escorted by DEA agents to their office and detained there for questioning and a strip search was so great that it “was in important respects indistinguishable from a traditional arrest.” Although the D was not told that she was under arrest, she in fact was not free to refuse to go to the DEA office and was not told that she was. Furthermore, once inside the office, the D would not have been permitted to leave without submitting to a strip search.

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