Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973)

Bustamonte clarified the prosecution’s burden to demonstrate that consent to a search was voluntarily given under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Police stopped a car for traffic violations. Bustamonte was a passenger in that car. The owner of the car as well as the driver consented to a search of the car. The police found contraband, and Bustamonte was convicted.

On appeal, Bustamonte argued that the state had to show that not only did consent to the search voluntarily but that the person knew that he had the option not to consent. The Supreme Court (six to three) held that a voluntary search was determined by the totality of the circumstances and cannot be obtained through explicit or implicit threats. The Court rejected the idea that there should be a Miranda-like warning required before a consent to search could be validly given. It would not be practical for the police to issue a warning to each person before a search. Furthermore, knowledge of a right to refuse a search is not a prerequisite of a voluntary consent. Consequently, the prosecution only had to show that the consent was voluntary and not coerced. In this case, the prosecution met the burden of voluntary consent to a search— during the search, the atmosphere was friendly, there was no discussion of any crime, and the owner as well as the driver of the car assisted the police in that search, that is, opening various compartments.

Justices Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall dissented with the premise that a verbal assent to the police was not enough because that request was backed by the ‘‘force of law.’’

AUDREY I-WEI HUANG

References and Further Reading

  • Barrio, Adrian J., Note, Rethinking Schneckloth v. Bustamonte: Incorporating Obedience Theory into the Supreme Court’s Conception of Voluntary Consent, University of Illinois Law Review 1997 (1997): 215.
  • Godsey, Mark A., Rethinking the Involuntary Confession Rule: Toward a Workable Test for Identifying Compelled Self-Incrimination, California Law Review 93 (2005): 465.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886)
  • Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543 (1968)
  • Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568 (1961)
  • Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938)
  • Miranda v. Arizona, 348 U.S. 346 (1966)

See also Miranda Warning; Searches (General Definition); Warrantless Searches

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