Schneckloth v. Bustamonte

Following is the case brief for Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973)

Case Summary of Schneckloth v. Bustamonte:

  • Bustamonte was a passenger in a car that was stopped for a traffic violation.
  • One occupant of the car, who said his brother owned the car, gave the officers consent to search the car.
  • The officers found three stolen checks, which were used to prosecute and convict Bustamonte.
  • After his state appeals were exhausted, Bustamonte filed a habeas petition, claiming violation of the Fourth Amendment.
  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Bustamonte, holding that proof that the subject of the search knew he could refuse consent is required before a consent search can be deemed valid under the Fourth Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  It held that the question of whether consent was voluntary requires a look at the totality of the circumstances.  Whether the subject of the search knew he could refuse consent is one factor to consider, but it is not a mandatory prerequisite to a consent search.

Schneckloth v. Bustamonte Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

California police officers stopped a car for a broken headlight.  The officers then obtained consent to search the car from one of the occupants of the car, who said that it was his brother’s car.  The officers found three checks that had been stolen from a car wash.  The checks were then used as evidence in a trial against Bustamonte.  Bustamonte was ultimately convicted.

Procedural History:

  • The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction.
  • The California Supreme Court denied review.
  • Bustamonte filed a habeas corpus petition, which was denied by the District Court.
  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the denial, holding that the State had to prove that Bustamonte knew he had the right to refuse consent before relying on a waiver of Fourth Amendment rights based on consent.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is proof that the subject of a search knew that he could refuse consent required for a consent search to be valid under the Fourth Amendment?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

When a search is based on consent, the Fourth Amendment requires that the consent was voluntary, and voluntariness is determined based on the totality of the circumstances.  Knowledge of the right to refuse consent by the subject of the search is a factor to be considered, but not a requirement.

Reasoning:

A search conducted based on valid consent is constitutionally permissible.  The consent, of course, must be voluntarily given.  To show consent was voluntary, it is not mandatory to prove that the defendant knew he could refuse consent.  Rather, voluntariness is determined by a review of the totality of the circumstances.  Whether the defendant knew he could refuse consent is one factor in that voluntariness determination.  But, knowledge of a right to refuse consent is not a prerequisite of a voluntary consent.

Unlike custodial interrogation situations, which are inherently coercive to defendants and thus require more proof with the recitation of Miranda warnings, there were no inherently coercive tactics employed in this case.  Therefore, when the subject of a search is not in custody, and the government asks for consent, the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the consent was voluntarily given.  Further, voluntariness is a question of fact to be determined from all the circumstances, and the subject’s knowledge of the right to refuse is one factor to be considered.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Blackmun):

Justice Powell’s discussion of Kaufman v. United States, in his concurring opinion is not necessary to decide the present case.

Concurring Opinion (Powell):

The Court’s opinion did not address the extent to which federal habeas review should be available to a state prisoner seeking to exclude evidence.  A Fourth Amendment challenge to a state court case should be confined to the question of whether the petitioner had a fair opportunity to raise the issue.  The finality of state court judgments is important.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas):

“Verbal assent” is not enough.  The Ninth Circuit was correct that the government must prove that a person knew he had the right to refuse consent before a consent search is valid under the Fourth Amendment.  Also, the case was improvidently granted because the Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the District Court for a finding on whether the subject of the search knew he could refuse consent.  That process should occur before the Court gets involved.

Dissenting Opinion (Brennan):

It makes no sense to find that a citizen has meaningfully waived something as precious as a constitutional guarantee without even knowing he was waiving it.

Dissenting Opinion (Marshall):

The Constitution guarantees a society of free choice.  The capacity to choose necessarily depends on the knowledge that there is a choice to be made.  Here, the State must show that the subject of a search knew he could refuse a search before concluding that the consent was valid.

Significance:

Schneckloth v. Bustamonte is significant because it establishes that consent searches are constitutional, and that the determination of whether the consent was voluntary is a “totality of the circumstances” inquiry.  The government need not prove that the subject of the search knew he could refuse consent.  That differs from the requirement of Miranda rights in the custodial interrogation setting.  Yet, as the Court noted, the coercive aspect of custodial interrogation is what makes Miranda different from the present case.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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