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United States v. Place


The defendant’s behavior aroused the suspicion of law enforcement officers as he waited in line at the Miami International Airport to purchase a ticket to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The officers approached the defendant and requested and received identification. There was a discrepancy in the name given by the defendant and his baggage tags. The defendant gave permission to the officers to open his luggage. As the defendant’s flight was about to leave, the officers decided not to search his luggage and allowed the defendant to depart. They called DEA in New York and relayed their information. Upon the defendant’s arrival in New York, two DEA agents approached him and said that they believed he might be carrying narcotics. When he refused to consent to a search of his luggage, one of the agents told him they were going to take the luggage to a federal judge to obtain a search warrant. The agents took the luggage to Kennedy Airport where it was subjected to a “sniff test” by a drug dog. The dog reacted positively to one of the suitcases. At this point, ninety minutes had elapsed since the seizure of the luggage. The agents obtained a search warrant and opened the luggage. They discovered cocaine inside.


1. Whether the prolonged seizure of the defendant’s baggage rendered the seizure unreasonable?

2. Whether a dog sniff is a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment?


1. Yes. The agents were justified in conducting a limited seizure of the containers, but their unnecessary delay rendered their seizure unreasonable.

2. No. Dog sniffs do not entail the intrusions typically found in the traditional Fourth Amendment searches.


Traditionally, the Court has viewed a seizure of personal property as per se unreasonable unless it is accomplished pursuant to a search warrant. When law enforcement authorities have probable cause to believe “that a container holds contraband or evidence of a crime, but have not secured a warrant, the Court has interpreted the Amendment to permit seizure of the property, pending issuance of a warrant to examine its contents, if the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.” Neither of those circumstances was present in this case. However, “when an officer’s observations lead him to reasonably to believe that a traveler is carrying luggage that contains narcotics, the principle of Terry and its progeny would permit the officer to detain the luggage briefly to investigate the circumstances that aroused his suspicion, provide that the investigative detention is properly limited in scope.”

In evaluating the reasonableness of a Terry-type detention, the brevity of the invasion of the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests is an important factor in determining whether the seizure is so minimally intrusive as to be justifiable on reasonable suspicion. Moreover, in assessing the effect of the length of detention, we take into account whether the police diligently pursue their investigation.” On this occasion, the agents in New York did not make effort to have minimized the intrusion on the defendant’s Fourth Amendment protection.

As for the “sniff test” by a trained narcotics dog, the Court found that this tool does not amount to a “search” because it “does not require opening the luggage. It does not expose non-contraband items that otherwise would remain hidden from public view, as does, for example, an officer’s rummaging through the contents of the luggage.” “Moreover, the sniff discloses only the presence or absence of narcotics, a contraband item. Thus, despite the fact that the sniff tells the authorities something about the contents of the luggage, the information obtained is limited.”


462 U.S. 696, 103 S. Ct. 2637 (1983)

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