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United States v. Mendenhall


A woman arrived at the Detroit airport from Los Angeles. As the woman disembarked, she was observed by two DEA agents to fit a “drug courier profile.” The agents approached the woman, identified themselves as federal agents, and asked to see her identification and airline ticket. The woman’s driver’s license identified her as Sylvia Mendenhall. Her airline ticket, however, was issued to “Annette Ford.” (It was not illegal to travel under an assumed name during this time.) The woman explained that she just felt like using that name and that she had been in California for two days. After one agents specifically identified himself as a federal narcotics agent, the woman became shaken, extremely nervous and had difficulty speaking.

After returning her airline ticket and driver’s license, the agent asked the woman if she would accompany him to the airport DEA office located about fifty feet away. Without a verbal response, the woman did so. The agent then asked the woman if he could search her person and handbag and told her that she had the right to decline the search if she so desired. The woman responded, “go ahead.” The agent found an airline ticket issued to “F. Bush” three days earlier for a flight to Los Angeles. The woman acknowledged this was the ticket she used for her flight to California. A policewoman, who had been summoned, asked the woman to consent to a search of her person, and the woman agreed. The policewoman asked the woman to disrobe; however the woman said she had to catch her plane. The policewoman assured her that if she were not carrying narcotics, there would be no problem. The woman disrobed without further comment, gave the policewoman two small packets, one of which contained heroin.


Whether the defendant voluntarily consented to the search?


Yes. Consent is based on the voluntary actions of the person granting the consent.


Not every encounter between a law enforcement officer and a citizen is an intrusion requiring justification. A person is seized only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained. As long as the person remains free to disregard the questions and walk away, there has been no constitutional intrusion upon the person’s liberty.

Some examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure are: the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of a person, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance might be compelled. In this case no seizure occurred. The events took place in the public concourse; the agents wore no uniforms and displayed no weapons; they did not summons the defendant to their presence, but instead, approached her and identified themselves as federal agents; they requested, but did not demand, to see her identification and ticket.

The final question is whether the defendant acted voluntarily. The Court considered the facts that she was twenty-two years old, had not graduated from high school, was a black female, and the officers were white males. While the facts were relevant, they were not decisive. The Court found her consent to be voluntarily granted.


446 U.S. 544, 100 S. Ct. 1870 (1980)

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