Upon his early morning arrival at the Atlanta Airport on a
eommercial flight, petitioner was seen by a federal narcotics agent
to look occasionally backward at a second man. Petitioner and the
other man each carried a shoulder bag, and apparently had no other
luggage. When the two men left the terminal together, the agent
asked them for identification, and, after they had consented to a
search of their persons and shoulder bags, petitioner tried to run
away, and before being apprehended, abandoned his bag, which was
subsequently found to contain cocaine. Prior to his trial on a
charge of possessing cocaine, petitioner's motion to suppress the
cocaine was granted by the Gergia trial court, but the Georgia
Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the stop of petitioner was
permissible, since he appeared to the agent to fit the so-called
"drug courier profile."
Held: The agent could not, as a matter of law, have reasonably
suspected petitioner of criminal activity on the basis of the
observed circumstances. Only the fact that petitioner preceded
another person and occasionally looked backward at him as they
proceeded through the concourse relates to their particular
conduct, whereas the other circumstances describe a very large
category of presumably innocent travelers. The fact that the agent
believed that petitioner and his companion were attempting to
conceal the fact that they were traveling together is too slender a
reed to support the seizure.
Certiorari granted; 149 Ga.App. 685, 255 S.E.2d
, vacated and remanded.
The petitioner was indicted in the Superior Court of Fulton
County, Ga., for possessing cocaine. At a hearing before trial, he
moved to suppress the introduction of the cocaine as evidence
against him on the ground that it had been seized from him by an
agent of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in
violation of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth
Page 448 U. S. 439
The relevant facts were determined at the pretrial hearing, and
may be recounted briefly. The petitioner arrived at the Atlanta
Airport on a commercial airline flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.,
in the early morning hours of August 14, 1978. The passengers left
the plane in a single file and proceeded through the concourse. The
petitioner was observed by an agent of the DEA, who was in the
airport for the purpose of uncovering illicit commerce in
narcotics. Separated from the petitioner by several persons was
another man, who carried a shoulder bag like the one the petitioner
carried. As they proceeded through the concourse past the baggage
claim area, the petitioner occasionally looked backward in the
direction of the second man. When they reached the main lobby of
the terminal, the second man caught up with the petitioner and
spoke briefly with him. They then left the terminal building
The DEA agent approached them outside of the building,
identified himself as a federal narcotics agent, and asked them to
show him their airline ticket stubs and identification, which they
did. The airline tickets had been purchased with the petitioner's
credit card, and indicated that the men had stayed in Fort
Lauderdale only one day. According to the agent's testimony, the
men appeared nervous during the encounter. The agent then asked
them if they would agree to return to the terminal and to consent
to a search of their persons and their shoulder bags. The agent
testified that the petitioner nodded his head affirmatively, and
that the other responded, "Yeah, okay." As the three of them
entered the terminal, however, the petitioner began to run, and
before he was apprehended, abandoned his shoulder bag. The bag,
when recovered, was found to contain cocaine.
The Superior Court granted the petitioner's motion to suppress
the cocaine, concluding that it had been obtained as a result of a
seizure of him by the DEA agent without an articulable suspicion
that he was unlawfully carrying narcotics. The Georgia Court of
Appeals reversed. 149 Ga.App. 685,
Page 448 U. S. 440
. It held that the stop of the petitioner was permissible,
citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1
since the petitioner, "in a number of respects, fit a profile'
of drug couriers compiled by the [DEA]." 149 Ga.App. at 686, 255
S.E.2d at 72. The appellate court also concluded that the
petitioner had consented to return to the terminal for a search of
his person, and that, after he had attempted to flee and had
discarded his shoulder bag, there existed probable cause for the
search of the bag.
The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments' prohibition of searches
and seizures that are not supported by some objective justification
governs all seizures of the person,
"including seizures that involve only a brief detention short of
traditional arrest. Davis v. Mississippi, 394 U. S.
(1969); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1
392 U. S. 16
United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.
, 422 U. S. 878
While the Court
has recognized that, in some circumstances, a person may be
detained briefly, without probable cause to arrest him, any
curtailment of a person's liberty by the police must be supported
at least by a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person
seized is engaged in criminal activity. See Brown v.
Texas, 443 U. S. 47
443 U. S. 51
(1979); Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.
, 440 U. S. 661
(1979); United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, supra; Adams v.
Williams, 407 U. S. 143
407 U. S.
-149 (1972); Terry v. Ohio, supra.
The appellate court's conclusion in this case that the DEA agent
reasonably suspected the petitioner of wrongdoing rested on the
fact that the petitioner appeared to the agent to fit the so-called
"drug courier profile," a somewhat informal compilation of
characteristics believed to be typical of persons unlawfully
carrying narcotics. Specifically, the court thought
Page 448 U. S. 441
it relevant that (1) the petitioner had arrived from Fort
Lauderdale, which the agent testified is a principal place of
origin of cocaine sold elsewhere in the country, (2) the petitioner
arrived in the early morning, when law enforcement activity is
diminished, (3) he and his companion appeared to the agent to be
trying to conceal the fact that they were traveling together, and
(4) they apparently had no luggage other than their shoulder
We conclude that the agent could not, as a matter of law, have
reasonably suspected the petitioner of criminal activity on the
basis of these observed circumstances. Of the evidence relied on,
only the fact that the petitioner preceded another person and
occasionally looked backward at him as they proceeded through the
concourse relates to their particular conduct. The other
circumstances describe a very large category of presumably innocent
travelers, who would be subject to virtually random seizures were
the Court to conclude that as little foundation as there was in
this case could justify a seizure. Nor can we agree, on this
record, that the manner in which the petitioner and his companion
walked through the airport reasonably could have led the agent to
suspect them of wrongdoing. Although there could, of course, be
circumstances in which wholly lawful conduct might justify the
suspicion that criminal activity was afoot, see Terry v. Ohio,
at 392 U. S. 27
this is not such a case. The agent's belief that the petitioner and
his companion were attempting to conceal the fact that they were
traveling together, a belief that was more an "inchoate and
unparticularized suspicion or hunch,'" 392 U.S. at 392 U. S. 27,
than a fair inference in the light of his experience, is simply too
slender a reed to support the seizure in this case.
For these reasons, the judgment of the appellate court cannot be
sustained insofar as it rests on the determination that the DEA
agent lawfully seized the petitioner when he approached him outside
the airline terminal. Accordingly the petition for certiorari is
granted, the judgment of the Georgia
Page 448 U. S. 442
Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded to that
court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST dissents for the reasons stated by MR.
JUSTICE STEWART in his opinion in United States v.
Mendenhall, 446 U. S. 544
(1980). He believes that the police conduct involved did not
implicate the Fourteenth or Fourth Amendment rights of the
"Obviously, not all personal intercourse between policemen and
citizens involves 'seizures' of persons. Only when the officer, by
means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way
restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a seizure
Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1
392 U. S. 19
16 (1968). See also id.
at 392 U. S. 34
(WHITE, J., concurring); id.
at 392 U. S. 31
392 U. S. 32
(Harlan, J., concurring).
MR. JUSTICE POWELL, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE
BLACKMUN join, concurring. [Footnote 1
This case is similar in many respects to United States v.
Mendenhall, 446 U. S. 544
(1980), in which a defendant observed walking through an airport
was stopped by DEA agents and asked for identification. The
threshold question in Mendenhall,
as here, was whether the
agent's initial stop of the suspect constituted a seizure within
the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. MR. JUSTICE STEWART, joined by
MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, was of the opinion that the mere stopping of
a person for identification purposes is not a seizure:
"We conclude that a person has been 'seized' within the meaning
of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the
circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would
have believed that he was not free to leave."
at 446 U. S. 554
Page 448 U. S. 443
Thus, on the basis of facts remarkably similar to those in the
present case, MR. JUSTICE STEWART and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST decided
that no seizure had occurred.
My concurring opinion in Mendenhall,
in which THE CHIEF
JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN joined, did not consider the
seizure issue because it had not been raised in the courts below.
Even if the stop constituted a seizure, it was my view that the DEA
agents had articulable and reasonable grounds for believing that
the individual was engaged in criminal activity. Therefore, they
did not violate the Fourth Amendment by stopping that person for
routine questioning. I expressly stated, however, that my decision
not to reach the seizure issue did not necessarily indicate
disagreement with the views of MR. JUSTICE STEWART and MR. JUSTICE
446 U. S. 560
, n. 1. [Footnote 3
The state courts, which decided this case before our decision in
did not consider whether the petitioner had
been seized. Rather, those courts apparently assumed that the stop
for routine identification questioning constituted a seizure, and
addressed only the question whether the agent's actions were
justified by articulable and reasonable grounds of suspicion.
Because we similarly do not consider the initial seizure question
in our decision today, that issue remains open for consideration by
the state courts in light of the opinions in
I agree, on the basis of the fragmentary facts apparently relied
upon by the DEA agents in this case, that there was no
justification for a "seizure."
MR. JUSTICE STEWART also noted that "[t]here is nothing in
the Constitution which prevents a policeman from addressing
questions to anyone on the streets.'" 446 U.S. at 446 U. S. 553,
quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1,
392 U. S. 34
(1968) (WHITE, J., concurring). See also ante at
448 U. S. 440,
MR. JUSTICE WHITE, joined by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, MR. JUSTICE
MARSHALL, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, filed a dissenting opinion in
in which they concluded that the respondent had
been detained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.