Brief Fact Summary. Police officers, without an articulable suspicion, approached an individual on a bus and asked him questions and to search his luggage.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[N]o seizure occurs when police ask questions of an individual, ask to examine the individual’s identification, and request consent to search his or her luggage – so long as the officers do not convey a message that compliance with their requests is required.”
Issue. Can officers approach individuals at random on buses to ask them questions and to request consent to search their luggage so long as a reasonable person would understand that he or she could refuse to cooperate?
Held. Yes. The majority first observed that a seizure does not occur “simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions.” Especially when “a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police and go about his business, the encounter is consensual, and no reasonable suspicion is required.”
The court observed that it has “stated that even when officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, they may generally ask questions of that individual, ask to examine the individual’s identification and request consent to search his or her luggage- as long as the police do not convey a message that compliance with their requests is required.”
“The Fourth Amendment proscribes unreasonable searches and seizures; it does not proscribe voluntary cooperation. The cramped confines of a bus are one relevant factor that should be considered in evaluating whether a passenger’s consent is voluntary. We cannot agree, however, with the Florida Supreme Court that this single factor will be dispositive in every case.”
Further, “[w]e adhere to the rule that, in order to determine whether a particular encounter constitutes a seizure, a court must consider all the circumstances surrounding the encounter to determine whether the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that the person was not free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter. That rule applies to encounters that take place on a city street or in an airport lobby, and it applies equally to encounters on a bus. The Florida Supreme Court erred in adopting a per se rule.”
The majority rejected the Florida Supreme Court’s reasoning and observed that it improperly focused “on whether Bostick was ‘free to leave,’ rather than on the principle that those words were intended to capture.” The majority reasoned “[w]hen police attempt to question a person who is walking down the street or through an airport lobby, it makes sense to inquire whether a reasonable person would feel free to continue walking. But when the person is seated on a bus and has no desire to leave, the degree to which a reasonable person would feel that he or she could leave is not an accurate measure of the coercive effect of the encounter.” For example, based on the facts of this case “mere fact that Bostick did not feel free to leave the bus does not mean that the police seized him. Bostick was a passenger on a bus that was scheduled to depart. He would not have felt free to leave the bus even if the police had not been present. Bostick’s movements were ‘confined’ in a sense, but thi
s was the natural result of his decision to take the bus; it says nothing about whether or not the police conduct at issue was coercive.”
To the contrary, “Bostick’s freedom of movement was restricted by a factor independent of police conduct – i.e., by his being a passenger on a bus.” As such, “the appropriate inquiry is whether a reasonable person would feel free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.”
Dissent: Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun, and Justice Stevens drafted a dissenting opinion arguing that “the law enforcement technique with which we are confronted in this case – the suspicionless police sweep of buses in intrastate or interstate travel – bears all of the indicia of coercion and unjustified intrusion associated with the general warrant.” As such, “the bus sweep at issue in this case violates the core values of the Fourth Amendment.”
The dissenting justices “have no objection to the manner in which the majority frames the test for determining whether a suspicionless bus sweep amounts to a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure.’ [They] agree that the appropriate question is whether a passenger who is approached during such a sweep ‘would feel free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.’ What [they] cannot understand is how the majority can possibly suggest an affirmative answer to this question.”
Instead, the justices would have found that “the issue is not whether a passenger in respondent’s position would have felt free to deny consent to the search of his bag, but whether such a passenger – without being apprised of his rights – would have felt free to terminate the antecedent encounter with the police.”
Discussion. It is interesting to read the majority and dissenting opinions alongside one another to see the tests the respective justices would apply.