A Border Patrol agent entered a bus to check the immigration status of the occupants. After satisfying himself that the passengers were lawfully in the United States, the agent walked toward the front of the bus, squeezing the soft luggage passengers had placed in the overhead storage bin. The agent felt a “brick-like” object in a green canvas bag. After verifying with the defendant that he owned the bag, the agent obtained consent to search its contents. He found a quantity of methamphetamine wrapped in duct tape, rolled in a pair of pants.
Whether the agent’s squeezing of the passengers’ containers was a “search” under the Fourth Amendment?
Yes. Placing items in public view does not convey the expectation that they will be handled by members of the public.
Under Katz, a search can be defined as a government intrusion on a reasonable expectation of privacy. The government argued that the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because he exposed his container to the public. The defendant could not prevent any other member of the public from handling the container. Therefore, he should not have the ability to complain when the government does.
However, the Court found this does not mean that introducing items into the public allows others to manipulate the property. It is true that fellow passengers and bus employees may handle the containers found in the overhead bin. However, the defendant would not have expected anyone to “feel the bag in an exploratory manner.” The Border Patrol agent exceeded the scope of what the public could have been expected to do (which went beyond merely viewing or engaging in incidental contact), thereby intruding on the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
529 U.S. 334, 120 S. Ct. 1462 (2000)