Florida v. Bostick: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Are random bus searches a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

luggage stacked in a bus compartment

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Florida v. Bostick (1991) asked the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether consensual searches of passenger luggage aboard a bus violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court found that the location of the search was only one factor in a larger question of whether or not a person actually had the free will to decline the search.

Fast Facts: Florida v. Bostick

  • Case Argued: February 26, 1991
  • Decision Issued: June 20, 1991
  • Petitioner: Florida
  • Respondent: Terrence Bostick
  • Key Questions: Is it illegal under the Fourth Amendment for police officers to board a bus and ask passengers for consent to search their luggage?
  • Majority Decision: Rehnquist, White, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter
  • Dissenting: Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens
  • Ruling: If no other factors of intimidation are present and the subject of the search is aware of their right to decline, officers may ask for consent to search random pieces of luggage.

Facts of the Case

In Broward County, Florida, the Sheriff’s Department stationed officers at bus depots to board buses and ask passengers for their permission to search their luggage. The activity was part of an effort to stop the transport of drugs throughout the state and between state lines.

Two police officers boarded a bus during a routine stopover in Fort Lauderdale. Officers singled-out Terrence Bostick. They asked for his ticket and identification. They then explained they were narcotics agents and asked to search his luggage. Bostick consented. The officers searched the luggage and found cocaine. They arrested Bostick and charged him with drug trafficking. 

Bostick’s attorney moved to exclude the evidence of cocaine at trial, arguing that the officers had violated his client’s Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure. The court denied the motion. Bostick pled guilty to the trafficking charge but reserved his right to appeal the court’s decision to deny his motion.

The Florida District Court of Appeals moved the case up to the Florida Supreme Court. The justices of the Florida Supreme Court found that boarding buses to ask consent to search luggage violated the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to evaluate the legality of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.

Constitutional Issues

Can police officers randomly board buses and ask consent to search luggage? Does this type of conduct amount to an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

Arguments

Bostick argued that the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment protections when they boarded the bus and asked to search his luggage. The search was not consensual, and Bostick was not really “free to leave.” Leaving the bus would have left him stranded in Fort Lauderdale without his luggage. Officers towered over Bostick and created an atmosphere in which he could not escape and felt compelled to consent to a search.

An attorney for the state argued that the Florida Supreme Court had erroneously created a rule that would ban consensual searches simply because they took place on a bus. The attorney argued that a bus is no different from an airport, train station, or a public street. Bostick could have gotten off the bus, retrieved his luggage, and waited for another bus or returned to the bus once officers had left. He was notified of his right to deny the search and chose to consent anyway out of his own free will, the attorney argued.

Majority Opinion

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the 6-3 decision. The Court’s decision focused exclusively on whether or not the randomized bus search could be considered an automatic violation of the Fourth Amendment. Justice O’Connor noted that not all interactions between police officers and civilians could be scrutinized under the Fourth Amendment. Officers are free to ask someone questions on the street, as long as it is clear that the person does not have to respond. The Supreme Court previously upheld an officer’s ability to ask questions of travelers in airports and train stations. A bus is no different, simply because it is a narrower space, Justice O’Connor wrote.

The majority opinion noted that Bostick was restricted from leaving the bus even before the officers boarded. He had to remain in his seat if he wanted to reach his final destination. He could not get off the bus because he was a traveler, not because of police coercion, the majority found.

However, the court noted that the nature of the bus—cramped and narrow—could be a factor in a larger consideration of whether or not police used coercive tactics. Justice O’Connor wrote that other factors could contribute to the overall coerciveness of the interaction, such as intimidation and a lack of notification of someone's right to refuse a search.

Despite Justice O’Connor’s focus on Bostick’s case, the Supreme Court ruled only on the legality of bus searches, remanding the case back down to the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether or not Bostick himself had been subject to an illegal search and seizure.

Justice O’Connor wrote:

“...a court must consider all the circumstances surrounding the encounter to determine whether the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that the person was not free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented, joined by Justice Harry Blackmun and Justice John Paul Stevens. Justice Marshall noted that while officers frequently conducted sweeps like the one that occurred at the Fort Lauderdale bus depot, they often did not find evidence of drug trafficking. The sweeps were intrusive and intimidating. Officers aboard the cramped, narrow bus often blocked the aisle, physically preventing passengers from exiting. Bostick would not have reasonably believed he could refuse to the search, Justice Marshall wrote.

Impact

Florida v. Bostick authorized police officers to conduct dragnet-style searches aboard public transportation. Bostick shifted the burden to the subject of the search. Under Bostick, the subject must prove that the police coerced him or her. The subject must also prove that they were not made aware of their ability to refuse the search. Bostick, and future Supreme Court rulings like Ohio v. Robinette (1996), eased search and seizure requirements on police officers. Under Ohio v. Robinette, a search can still be voluntary and consensual, even if an officer does not inform someone they are free to leave.

Sources

  • Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429 (1991).
  • “Florida v. Bostick - Impact.” Law Library - American Law and Legal Information, https://law.jrank.org/pages/24138/Florida-v-Bostick-Impact.html.