United States v. Mendenhall
Decided on May 27, 1980; 446 US 544


A. Issues Discussed: Search and seizure

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the respondent freely and voluntarily submit to a search by law enforcement?


A. Background:

"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... 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... 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....

A female police officer then arrived to conduct the search of the respondent's person.... 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.

It was on the basis of this evidence that the District Court denied the respondent's motion to suppress...

The Court of Appeals reversed the respondent's subsequent conviction...

On rehearing en banc of the present case, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its original decision, stating simply that the respondent had not validly consented to the search 'within the meaning of [McCaleb].'"

On certiorari the US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., for the American Civil Liberties Union; and by Terence F. MacCarthy and Carol A. Brook for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

F. Randall Karfonta argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

Brief of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W. Schmidt, Frank G. Carrington, Jr., and James P. Manak filed a brief for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc.,

Deputy Solicitor General Frey argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General McCree and Assistant Attorney General Heymann.


"The Fourth Amendment's requirement that searches and seizures be founded upon an objective justification, governs all seizures of the person, 'including seizures that involve only a brief detention short of traditional arrest.' Accordingly, if 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.'

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...

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...

Although we have concluded that the initial encounter between the DEA agents and the respondent on the concourse at the Detroit Airport did not constitute an unlawful seizure, it is still arguable that the respondent's Fourth Amendment protections were violated when she went from the concourse to the DEA office. Such a violation might in turn infect the subsequent search of the respondent's person...

On the other hand, it is argued that the incident would reasonably have appeared coercive to the respondent, who was 22 years old and had not been graduated from high school. It is additionally suggested that the respondent, a female and a Negro, may have felt unusually threatened by the officers, who were white males. While these factors were not irrelevant, see Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, supra, at 226, neither were they decisive, and the totality of the evidence in this case was plainly adequate to support the District Court's finding that the respondent voluntarily consented to accompany the officers to the DEA office."

The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con
  • Stewart, P. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal's judgment; the Supreme Court reversed and remanded in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.