Florida v. Bostick
501 U.S. 429, 111 S. Ct. 2382,
115 L.Ed.2d 389 (1991)

Defendant Terrance Bostick boarded a bus from Miami to Atlanta. At a stopover in Ft. Lauderdale, the bus was boarded by two uniformed narcotics officers who were performing a routine inspection of the bus. Without reasonable suspicion, the officers approached Bostick in his seat and requested to see his ticket and identification. Finding nothing unusual, the officers proceeded to request consent to search his luggage. Bostick reportedly consented, at which point the officers performed a search and discovered cocaine. Bostick was subsequently convicted. He appealed claiming that due to his apparent inability to leave the bus, the encounter constituted an unlawful seizure. Consequently, he argued that the evidence obtained from his unlawful seizure must be suppressed.

The Supreme Court upheld Bostick’s conviction, finding that the practice of contacting citizens on buses in this fashion did not constitute an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Court’s ruling rejected Bostick’s claim that because the officers were armed and positioned such that he could not leave his seat or the bus, the encounter was a seizure. Since it was never directly communicated to the defendant that he was not free to leave, the Court concluded that the police officers’ actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment. So long as nature of the officers’ contact with the defendant is determined to be constitutionally valid, his consent to be searched and the resultant evidence are considered valid as well.

What you should know about investigatory stops and detentions:

Florida v. Bostick
is a clear example of how law enforcement officers take advantage of citizens’ overestimation of their authority. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s ruling in this case indicates a willingness to accommodate manipulative law enforcement practices in order to prevent the Constitution’s provisions from interfering with the arrest of drug suspects. So long as the police and the courts cooperate in using the ignorance of suspects as a tool to obtain convictions, it’s extremely important for citizens to know their rights.

In the context of investigatory stops and detentions, here are a few important principles that should be remembered:

1. Police may not detain you without reasonable suspicion.

2. If police detain you, they are not entitled to any information other than your identification.

3. Police may not search you without either probable cause or your consent. (You have the right to refuse search requests.)

4. Your refusal to be searched cannot be used as evidence that you may be involved in a crime, and police cannot detain you because of your refusal.

5. Police will often try to trick you into thinking you can’t leave. You may ask if you are free to go.