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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Villamonte-Marquez, 462 U.S. 579 (1983)

United States v. Villamonte-Marquez

No. 81-1350

Argued February 23, 1983

Decided June 17, 1983

462 U.S. 579


Title 19 U.S.C. § 1581(a) authorizes customs officers to board any vessel at any time and at any place in the United States to examine the vessel's manifest and other documents. Customs officers, while patroling a ship channel which connects the Gulf of Mexico with Lake Charles, La., a Customs Port of Entry, sighted an anchored, 40-foot sailboat. The wake of a passing vessel caused the sailboat to rock violently, and when one of the two respondents, who were aboard the vessel, shrugged his shoulders in an unresponsive manner when asked if the sailboat and crew were all right, one of the customs officers, accompanied by a Louisiana State Police officer, boarded the sailboat and asked to see the vessel's documentation. While examining a document, the customs officer smelled what he thought to be burning marihuana and, looking through an open hatch, saw burlap-wrapped bales that proved to be marihauna. Respondents were then arrested and given Miranda warnings, and a subsequent search revealed more marihuana stored throughout the vessel. Upon trial in Federal District Court, respondents were convicted of various federal drug offenses, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the officers' boarding of the sailboat violated the Fourth Amendment because the boarding occurred in the absence of "a reasonable suspicion of a law violation."

Held: The action of the customs officers in boarding the sailboat pursuant to § 1581(a) was "reasonable," and was therefore consistent with the Fourth Amendment. Although no Act of Congress can authorize a violation of the Constitution, in 1790, in a lineal ancestor to § 1581(a), the First Congress clearly authorized the suspicionless boarding of vessels by Government officers, reflecting its view that such boardings are not contrary to the Fourth Amendment, which was promulgated by the same Congress. While random stops of vehicles, without any articulable suspicion of unlawful conduct, away from the Nation's borders are not permissible under the Fourth Amendment, United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873; Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U. S. 648, whereas vehicles stops at fixed checkpoints or at roadblocks are, United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U. S. 543; Delaware v. Prouse, supra, the nature of waterborne commerce in waters providing ready access to

Page 462 U. S. 580

the open sea is sufficiently different from the nature of vehicular traffic on highways as to make possible alternatives to the sort of "stop" made in this case less likely to accomplish the obviously essential governmental purposes involved. The system of prescribed outward markings used by States for vehicle registration is also significantly different than the system of external markings on vessels, and the extent and type of vessel documentation required by federal law is a good deal more variable and complex than are the state vehicle registration laws. Moreover, governmental interests in assuring compliance with vessel documentation requirements, particularly in waters where the need to deter or apprehend smugglers is great, are substantial, whereas the type of intrusion made in this case, while not minimal, is limited. Pp. 462 U. S. 584-593.

652 F.2d 481, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, and in Part I of which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 462 U. S. 593.

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