Ornelas v. United States,
517 U.S. 690 (1996)

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No. 95-5257. Argued March 26, 1996-Decided May 28,1996

In denying petitioners' motion to suppress cocaine found in their car, the District Court ruled that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop and question petitioners, and probable cause to remove one of the interior panels where a package containing the cocaine was found. The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed both determinations, reviewing each "deferentially," and "for clear error," and finding no clear error in either instance.

Held: The ultimate questions of reasonable suspicion to stop and probable cause to make a warrantless search should be reviewed de novo. The principal components of either inquiry are (1) a determination of the historical facts leading up to the stop or search, and (2) a decision on the mixed question of law and fact whether the historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to reasonable suspicion or to probable cause. Independent appellate review of the latter determination is consistent with the position taken by this Court, see, e. g., Brinegar v. United States, 338 U. S. 160; will prevent unacceptably varied results based on the interpretation of similar facts by different trial judges, see id., at 171; is necessary if appellate courts are to maintain control of, and to clarify, the pertinent legal rules, see Miller v. Fenton, 474 U. S. 104, 114; and will tend to unify precedent and to provide police with a defined set of rules which, in most instances, will make it possible to reach a correct determination beforehand as to whether an invasion of privacy is justified in the interest of law enforcement, see, e. g., New York v. Belton, 453 U. S. 454, 458. However, a reviewing court should take care both to review findings of historical fact only for clear error and to give due weight to inferences drawn therefrom by resident judges, who view such facts in light of the community's distinctive features and events, and by local police, who view the facts through the lens of their experience and expertise. Pp. 695-700.

16 F.3d 714 and 52 F.3d 328, vacated and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 700.


Robert G. LeBell argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Brian W Gleason.

Cornelia T. L. Pillard argued the cause for the United States. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and Joel M. Gershowitz.

Peter D. Isakoff, by invitation of the Court, 516 U. S. 1008, argued the cause and filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of the judgment below. *

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners each pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. They reserved their right to appeal the District Court's denial of their motion to suppress the cocaine found in their car. The District Court had found reasonable suspicion to stop and question petitioners as they entered their car, and probable cause to remove one of the interior panels where a package containing two kilograms of cocaine was found. The Court of Appeals opined that the findings of reasonable suspicion to stop, and probable cause to search, should be reviewed "deferentially," and "for clear error." We hold that the ultimate questions of reasonable suspicion and probable cause to make a warrantless search should be reviewed de novo.

The facts are not disputed. In the early morning of a December day in 1992, Detective Michael Pautz, a 20-year veteran of the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department with 2 years specializing in drug enforcement, was conducting drug-interdiction surveillance in downtown Milwaukee.

*Tracey Maclin, Steven R. Shapiro, and Barbara E. Bergman filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

Fred E. Inbau, Wayne W Schmidt, James P. Manak, and Bernard J.

Farber filed a brief for Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, Inc., et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance.

Full Text of Opinion

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