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United States v. Montoya de Hernandez


The defendant traveled to Los Angeles on a direct flight from Columbia. A Customs Inspector noticed from her passport that the defendant had made approximately eight recent trips from Columbia to either Miami or Los Angeles. The Inspector knew that Bogota was a source city for drugs. The Inspector discovered that the defendant spoke no English and had no family or friends in the United States. She carried $5,000 in cash, primarily in $50 bills, and claimed that she had come to the United States to buy goods for her husband’s store in Bogota. However, she had not set up any meetings with retailers. She did not have hotel reservations. She could not remember how her airline ticket was purchased, and had only four changes of clothing. The defendant only possessed the shoes (high-heeled) she was wearing. She had no checks, credit cards, waybills, or letters of credit, although she did have old receipts and waybills, and a Colombian business card. Based upon these facts and his experience, the Inspector suspected the defendant was a “balloon swallower,” one who attempts to smuggle drugs into the country through her alimentary canal.

A female Inspector moved the defendant into a private area and conducted a pat-down and strip search. Nothing was found, but the inspector noted a “firm fullness” in the defendant’s abdomen area. She was also wearing two pair of underpants with a paper towel lining the crotch area. The defendant was told she was suspected of smuggling drugs in her alimentary canal. When asked to be x-rayed, the defendant agreed, but stated she was pregnant. She agreed to a pregnancy test prior to the x-ray, but later withdrew her consent to the x-ray. For approximately sixteen hours, the defendant refused to eat or drink anything or use the toilet facilities. Customs officials sought a court order authorizing a pregnancy test, an x-ray, and a rectal examination. A Federal magistrate authorized the rectal examination and an involuntary x-ray, provided the doctor considered the defendant’s claim of pregnancy. At a local hospital, the defendant’s pregnancy test was negative. During the rectal examination, a balloon was found containing an unknown substance. The defendant was then formally arrested. Over the next four days, the defendant passed a total of 88 balloons containing 528 grams of cocaine.



1. Whether the government developed a proper level of suspicion to detain the defendant at the border beyond the scope of a routine customs search and inspection?

2. Whether the sixteen-hour detention in this case was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment?


1. Yes. To detain a traveler at the border beyond the scope of a routine customs search and inspection, reasonable suspicion must exist.

2. No. Given the circumstances of this case, the sixteen-hour detention was reasonable.


Under the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures must be reasonable. The test for “reasonableness” at the international border is significantly different than it is within the interior of the United States. Not only is an individual’s expectation of privacy reduced at the border, but the government’s interest in protecting the border from those who would bring anything harmful into the country is substantial. As for the first issue, the “reasonable suspicion” standard “fits well into the situations involving alimentary canal smuggling at the border: this type of smuggling gives no external signs and Inspectors will rarely possess probable cause to arrest or search, yet governmental interests in stopping smuggling at the border are high indeed.” Here, the Inspector had reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant beyond the scope of a routine customs search and inspection.

As for the second issue, it is obvious that alimentary canal smuggling cannot be detected in the amount of time that most other illegal activities can. The detention in this case was further lengthened by the defendant’s own refusal to be either x-rayed or have a bowel movement. The Court refused to charge the government with delays in investigatory detentions attributable to the suspect’s evasive actions. For these reasons, the sixteen-hour detention was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.


473 U.S. 531, 105 S. Ct. 3304 (1985)

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