Florida v. Bostick

Following is the case brief for Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429 (1991)

Case Summary of Florida v. Bostick:

  • Two officers boarded Terrence Bostick’s bus, questioned him, and asked him for consent to look in his luggage.  They advised him of his right to refuse.  Bostick gave consent, and cocaine was found in his luggage.
  • Bostick moved to suppress the drugs on Fourth Amendment grounds.  The trial court denied the motion, and the state court of appeals affirmed.
  • On a certified question to the court, the Florida Supreme Court held that the police’s action on the bus was per se unconstitutional.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded.  The Court articulated the correct Fourth Amendment standard for these circumstances — whether a reasonable bus passenger would feel free to refuse consent or otherwise terminate the police encounter.

Florida v. Bostick Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Sheriff’s officers in Broward County, as part of the war on drugs, routinely boarded buses at certain stops and asked to search passengers’ luggage.  Terrence Bostick, on a bus route from Miami to Atlanta, was confronted by two officers who asked Bostick’s consent to search his luggage.  The officers told Bostick that he had the right to refuse consent.  After Bostick gave consent, the officers found cocaine in his luggage and arrested him for drug trafficking.

Procedural History:

  • Bostick moved the trial court to suppress the cocaine, arguing that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.  The trial court denied the motion, and Bostick pleaded guilty.
  • On appeal, the Florida District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision not to suppress the cocaine, but certified the issue to the Florida Supreme Court.
  • The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the police practice of asking for consent to search luggage on buses was per se unconstitutional.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the Florida Supreme Court’s per se rule is consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

Issue and Holding:

Is the police practice of boarding a bus and asking certain passengers for consent to search their luggage a per se seizure” under the Fourth Amendment?  No.


The judgment of the Florida Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Every police encounter on a bus, where officers ask to make consent searches, is not per se unconstitutional.  Rather, courts should inquire as to whether a reasonable passenger would feel free to decline the request for consent or otherwise end the encounter with police.


  • The Fourth Amendment is not triggered by a request for consent.

A consensual encounter does not implicate the Fourth Amendment.  Further, police officers do not need to have suspicion of a crime to ask an individual questions or ask for consent to search a bag.

  • Bostick’s “freedom to leave” argument is not the correct standard. 

Bostick’s argument — that his limited freedom to leave the bus means that there was a seizure in this case — is misplaced.  His limited freedom has more to do with the fact that he was on a bus midway to his destination, rather than due to the police.  The true test of whether a Fourth Amendment seizure occurred here is whether a reasonable bus passenger would feel free to decline the request for consent, or otherwise terminate the police encounter, consistent with INS v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210 (1984).

  • Case must be remanded for a review based on the correct standard.

The Florida Supreme Court’s per se rule hinges solely on whether the encounter occurred on a bus.  That is the incorrect analysis.  The totality of the circumstances should be considered to determine whether a reasonable passenger could refuse consent or terminate the police encounter.  Accordingly, the case must be remanded for a determination based on that legal test.

Dissenting Opinion (Marshall):

The police technique of making suspicionless sweeps of buses appears strikingly similar to the general warrant that the Fourth Amendment was written to combat.  Indeed, these sweeps are intrusive and intimidating.  It is hard to imagine how the Court could conclude that a person would ever feel free to decline consent or terminate the encounter with police on the facts of this case.  Accordingly, the police conduct here violates the core values of the Fourth Amendment.


Florida v. Bostick stirred controversy when it was decided because, as Justice Marshall stated, it seems unreasonable to think that a person would ever refuse consent or terminate an encounter with an armed police officer who is standing over that person in a cramped bus.  It should be noted, however, that the Court did not conclude that Bostick’s situation was consistent with the Fourth Amendment.  The Court merely rejected the notion that bus sweeps were per se unconstitutional.

Student Resources: