United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975)

2012-09-19 13:40:38

Two border patrol officers seated in their car late at night were watching cars drive by a border checkpoint that had been closed because of bad weather. The officers pursued a car, stopped it, questioned, and arrested its three occupants when the officers learned two of them were undocumented aliens. The officers claimed that the only reason for the stop had been the occupants’ Mexican appearance.

The driver was convicted of knowingly transporting illegal immigrants. He challenged his conviction on the grounds that the testimony of the undocumented aliens had to be suppressed because their seizure was illegal. The Court affirmed the lower court’s reversal of the conviction reasoning that the Fourth Amendment prohibited random, roving patrol stops in areas near the border. The Court interpreted the Fourth Amendment to permit Border Patrol officers to briefly stop vehicles in areas near the border and question the occupants to determine whether they were legally in the United States if the officers had a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle was carrying undocumented aliens. The fact that the vehicle’s occupants were of Mexican ancestry or appearance could be used as a factor to establish reasonable suspicion but could not alone justify the stop. Reasonable suspicion consists of specific facts, like the characteristics of the area, the usual patterns of traffic, previous experience with alien traffic, the proximity of the border, information about recent illegal border crossings, the driver’s behavior, the vehicle itself, and the characteristics of the persons in the vehicle that establish the likelihood that the vehicle carries undocumented aliens.

The case is one of the first modern Supreme Court cases to deal with the issue of racial profiling.


See also Exclusionary Rule; Race and Criminal Justice; Race and Immigration; Noncitizens and Civil Liberties; Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), Undocumented Migrants