United States v. Mendenhall (1980)

Supreme Court of the United States

United States v. Sylvia L. Mendenhall  

Decided May 27, 1980 – 446 U.S. 544 


Mr. Justice STEWART announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Mr. Justice REHNQUIST joined.29


The respondent was brought to trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on a charge of possessing heroin with intent to distribute it. She moved to suppress the introduction at trial of the heroin as evidence against her on the ground that it had been acquired from her through an unconstitutional search and seizure by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The District Court denied the respondent’s motion, and she was convicted after a trial upon stipulated facts. The Court of Appeals reversed. We granted certiorari. 


At the hearing in the trial court on the respondent’s motion to suppress, it was established how the heroin she was charged with possessing had been obtained from her. The respondent arrived at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a commercial airline flight from Los Angeles early in the morning on February 10, 1976. As she 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 respondent’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 respondent produced her driver’s license, which was in the name of Sylvia Mendenhall, and, in answer to a question of one of the agents, stated that she resided at the address appearing on the license. The airline ticket was issued in the name of “Annette Ford.” When asked why the ticket bore a name different from her own, the respondent stated that she “just felt like using that name.” In response to a further question, the respondent indicated that she had been in California only two days. Agent Anderson then specifically identified himself as a federal narcotics agent and, according to his testimony, the respondent “became quite shaken, extremely nervous. She had a hard time speaking.” 

After returning the airline ticket and driver’s license to her, Agent Anderson asked the respondent 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 respondent had first been approached, consisted of a reception area adjoined by three other rooms. At the office the agent asked the respondent 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 respondent stated that it was. 

A female police officer then arrived to conduct the search of the respondent’s person. She asked the agents if the respondent had consented to be searched. The agents said that she had, and the respondent followed the policewoman into a private room. There the policewoman again asked the respondent if she consented to the search, and the respondent replied that she did. The policewoman explained that the search would require that the respondent remove her clothing. The respondent 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 respondent then began to disrobe without further comment. As the respondent 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 respondent for possessing heroin. 


Here the Government concedes that its agents had neither a warrant nor probable cause to believe that the respondent was carrying narcotics when the agents conducted a search of the respondent’s person. It is the Government’s position, however, that the search was conducted pursuant to the respondent’s consent, and thus was excepted from the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause. Evidently, the Court of Appeals concluded that the respondent’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. We must first consider, therefore, whether such conduct occurred, either on the concourse or in the DEA office at the airport. 


[I]f the respondent was “seized” when the DEA agents approached her on the concourse and asked questions of her, the agents’ conduct in doing so was constitutional only if they reasonably suspected the respondent of wrongdoing. But “[o]bviously, not all personal intercourse between policemen and citizens involves ‘seizures’ of persons. Only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a ‘seizure’ has occurred.”  

We conclude 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. In the absence of some such evidence, otherwise inoffensive contact between a member of the public and the police cannot, as a matter of law, amount to a seizure of that person. 

On the facts of this case, no “seizure” of the respondent occurred. The events took place in the public concourse. The agents wore no uniforms and displayed no weapons. They did not summon the respondent to their presence, but instead approached her and identified themselves as federal agents. They requested, but did not demand to see the respondent’s identification and ticket. Such conduct without more, did not amount to an intrusion upon any constitutionally protected interest. The respondent was not seized simply by reason of the fact that the agents approached her, asked her if she would show them her ticket and identification, and posed to her a few questions. Nor was it enough to establish a seizure that the person asking the questions was a law enforcement official. In short, nothing in the record suggests that the respondent 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 we conclude that the agents’ initial approach to her was not a seizure. 

Our conclusion that no seizure occurred is not affected by the fact that the respondent 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. We also reject the argument that the only inference to be drawn from the fact that the respondent acted in a manner so contrary to her self-interest is that she was compelled to answer the agents’ questions. 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. 



[In a concurrence joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justice Blackmun, Justice Powell wrote that the Court should not decide whether the agents “seized” Mendenhall because the courts below had not considered it. Further, he argued that if the encounter did constitute a seizure, it was justified because the circumstances provided “reasonable suspicion.”] 


Mr. Justice WHITE, with whom Mr. Justice BRENNAN, Mr. Justice MARSHALL, and Mr. Justice STEVENS join, dissenting. 



Whatever doubt there may be concerning whether Ms. Mendenhall’s Fourth Amendment interests were implicated during the initial stages of her confrontation with the DEA agents, she 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. [T]he nature of the intrusion to which Ms. Mendenhall 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 Ms. Mendenhall 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, Ms. Mendenhall would not have been permitted to leave without submitting to a strip-search.31 

The Court recognizes that the Government has the burden of proving that Ms. Mendenhall consented to accompany the officers, but it nevertheless holds that the “totality of evidence was plainly adequate” to support a finding of consent. On the record before us, the Court’s conclusion can only be based on the notion that consent can be assumed from the absence of proof that a suspect resisted police authority. 

Since the defendant was not present to testify at the suppression hearing, we can only speculate about her state of mind as her encounter with the DEA agents progressed from surveillance, to detention, to questioning, to seclusion in a private office, to the female officer’s command to remove her clothing. Nevertheless, it is unbelievable that this sequence of events involved no invasion of a citizen’s constitutionally protected interest in privacy. The rule of law requires a different conclusion.  


Notes, Comments, and Questions  

The Court in Mendenhall stated that a person is seized if “a reasonable person [in his situation] would have believed that he was not free to leave.” As a result, lawyers and others have recommended that if someone is approached by police and wishes either to avoid or to end the encounter, a useful tactic is to ask, “Am I free to leave?” If the answer is “yes,” then the person may leave without further discussion. If the answer is “no,” then the person should stay—a reasonable person in the situation would not feel free to go. A person told “no” can later challenge the interaction as an unlawful seizure. At a minimum the encounter should be considered a “seizure;” the debate will be about its legality. (An equivalent tactic is to ask, “Am I being detained?” An answer of “no” indicates permission to leave. “Yes” indicates a seizure.) 


Consider the following scenario:  

Police approach a suspect (who had recently parked his car) and ask to speak to him. The suspect agrees. The officer asks for identification, and the suspect produces a driver’s license. Before returning the license, the officer asks for and receives permission to search the suspect’s vehicle. Is that search the product of valid consent given by a suspect who had not been “seized” during the encounter? Or, instead, did the officer detain the suspect by retaining his driver’s license, thereby creating a situation in which a reasonable person would not feel free to leave? See United States v. De La Rosa, 922 F.2d 675, 678 (11th Cir. 1991); id. at 680-81 (Clark, J., dissenting on this question).32 

Now imagine a slightly different scenario: Police lawfully stop a car and ask the driver for his license, which is provided. Before returning the license, officers ask for permission to search the car. Is this scenario different from the prior one in any material way? See United States v. Thompson, 712 F.2d 1356, 1360-61 (11th Cir. 1983). 


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