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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531 (1985)

United States v. Montoya de Hernandez

No. 84-755

Argued April 24, 1985

Decided July 1, 1985

473 U.S. 531


Upon her arrival at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from Bogota, Colombia, respondent was detained by customs officials when after examination of her passport and the contents of her valise and questioning by the officials, she was suspected of being a "balloon swallower," i.e., one who attempts to smuggle narcotics into this country hidden in her alimentary canal. She was detained incommunicado for almost 16 hours before the officials sought a court order authorizing a pregnancy test (she having claimed to be pregnant), an x-ray, and a rectal examination. During those 16 hours, she was given the option of returning to Colombia on the next available flight, agreeing to an x-ray, or remaining in detention until she produced a monitored bowel movement. She chose the first option, but the officials were unable to place her on the next flight, and she refused to use the toilet facilities. Pursuant to the court order, a pregnancy test was conducted at a hospital and proved negative, and a rectal examination resulted in the obtaining of 88 cocaine-filled balloons that had been smuggled in her alimentary canal. Subsequently, after a suppression hearing, the District Court admitted the cocaine in evidence against respondent, and she was convicted of various federal narcotics offenses. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that respondent's detention violated the Fourth Amendment because the customs officials did not have a "clear indication" of alimentary canal smuggling at the time respondent was detained.

Held: The detention of a traveler at the border, beyond the scope of a routine customs search and inspection, is justified at its inception if customs agents, considering all the facts surrounding the traveler and her trip, reasonably suspect that the traveler is smuggling contraband in her alimentary canal; here, the facts, and their rational inferences, known to the customs officials clearly supported a reasonable suspicion that respondent was an alimentary canal smuggler. Pp. 473 U. S. 536-544.

(a) The Fourth Amendment's emphasis upon reasonableness is not consistent with the creation of a "clear indication" standard to cover a case such as this as an intermediate standard between "reasonable suspicion" and "probable cause." Pp. 473 U. S. 537-541.

(b) The "reasonable suspicion" standard effects a needed balance between private and public interests when law enforcement officials must chanrobles.com-red

Page 473 U. S. 532

make a limited intrusion on less than probable cause. It thus fits well into situations involving alimentary canal smuggling at the border: this type of smuggling gives no external signs, and inspectors will rarely possess probable cause to arrest or search, yet governmental interests in stopping smuggling at the border are high. Pp. 473 U. S. 541-542.

(c) Under the circumstances, respondent's detention, while long, uncomfortable, and humiliating, was not unreasonably long. Alimentary canal smuggling cannot be detected in the amount of time in which other illegal activity may be investigated through brief stops. When respondent refused an x-ray as an alternative to simply awaiting her bowel movement, the customs inspectors were left with only two practical alternatives: detain her for such time as necessary to confirm their suspicions or turn her loose into the interior of the country carrying the reasonably suspected contraband drugs. Moreover, both the length of respondent's detention and its discomfort resulted solely from the method that she chose to smuggle illicit drugs into this country. And in the presence of an articulable suspicion of alimentary canal smuggling, the customs officials were not required by the Fourth Amendment to pass respondent and her cocaine-filled balloons into the interior. Pp. 473 U. S. 542-544.

731 F.2d 1369, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 473 U. S. 545. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 473 U. S. 545.


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