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United States v. Sharpe

Facts

While patrolling a highway in an area under surveillance for suspected drug trafficking, a DEA agent noticed an apparently overloaded pickup truck. The truck had an attached camper and appeared to be traveling in tandem with a Pontiac. Savage was driving the truck, and the defendant was driving the Pontiac. The windows of the camper were covered with a thick bed-sheet material. After following the two vehicles for about 20 miles, the agent decided to make an “investigative stop” and radioed a highway patrol officer for assistance. The patrol officer and the DEA agent continued to follow the two vehicles. Both suspect vehicles engaged in evasive actions and started speeding as soon as the marked police car began to follow them. When the officers attempted to stop the vehicles, the defendant pulled over, but the truck continued, pursued by the state officer. The patrol officer stopped the truck, questioned Savage, and told him that he would be held until the DEA agent arrived. The agent arrived at the scene approximately 15 minutes after the truck had been stopped. After confirming his suspicion that the truck was overloaded and upon smelling marijuana, the agent opened the rear of the camper without Savage’s permission and observed a number of burlap-wrapped bales resembling bales of marijuana the agent had seen in previous investigations. The agent then placed Savage and the defendant under arrest.

Issue

Whether the seizures met the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of brevity governing detentions on less than probable cause?

Held

Yes. The seizures were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment as they were accomplished with the least amount of intrusion as possible.

Discussion

In evaluating the reasonableness of an investigative stop, this Court examines “whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception, and whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.” In assessing whether a detention is too long to be justified as an investigative stop, it is appropriate to examine whether the government diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant.

If an investigative stop continues indefinitely, at some point it can no longer be justified as an investigative stop. However, the Court refused to impose a rigid time limitation on Terry stops. It is clear that the brevity of the intrusion is an important factor in determining whether the seizure is reasonable. As much as a “bright line” rule

would be desirable in evaluating whether an investigative detention is unreasonable, the Court held that common sense and ordinary human experience must govern over rigid criteria. Here, the DEA agent diligently pursued his investigation, and involved no unnecessary delay to the investigation. He concluded his investigation as quickly as he could. Therefore, the investigative stops were reasonable.

Citation

470 U.S. 675, 105 S. Ct. 1568 (1985)

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