United States v. Sokolow


490 U.S. 1 (1989).

One-Sentence Takeaway

Law enforcement officers can stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if they have reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity may be afoot, even if the officers lack probable cause under the Fourth Amendment.


Defendant (Sokolow) was stopped at the Honolulu airport by DEA agents for investigation.  At the time of the stop, the DEA agents knew the following about Defendant:  (1) that he paid $2,100 for two airplane tickets from a roll of $20 bills; (2) that he traveled under a name that did not match the name under which his telephone number was listed; (3) that his original destination was Miami, a source city for illicit drugs; (4) that he stayed in Miami for only 48 hours, even though a round-trip flight from Honolulu to Miami takes 20 hours; (5) that he appeared nervous during his trip; and (6) that he checked none of his luggage.  Upon search of his luggage, the DEA agents found cocaine and Defendant was arrested.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to conduct the search.  The United States Supreme Court disagreed and reversed.

The Court stated that the police can briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  “Reasonable suspicion entails some minimal level of objective justification for making a stop — that is, something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch,’ but less than the level of suspicion required for probable cause.”

The Court attempted to explain the term “reasonable suspicion” as follows:  “The concept of reasonable suspicion, like probable cause, is not ‘readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules . . . The process does not deal with hard certainties, but with probabilities.  Long before the law of probabilities was articulated as such, particular people formulated certain common-sense conclusions about human behavior; jurors as fact-finders are permitted to do the same — and so are law enforcement officers.”

Applying the foregoing principles to the facts of the case, the Court reasoned that the combination of Defendant’s actions gave the DEA agents reasonable suspicion to conduct the airport stop.  “Any one of these factors is not by itself proof of any illegal conduct and is quite consistent with innocent travel.  But we think taken together they amount to reasonable suspicion.”

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