Schneckloth v. Bustamonte
412 U.S. 218, 93 S. Ct. 2041, 36 L. Ed.2d 854 (1973)

  • The police pulled over a car with six passengers (including Bustamonte) because of a broken headlight.
  • One of the passengers (Alcala) said the car belonged to his brother, and the policeman asked if he could do a search of the car. The passenger consented to the search.
  • The search turned up several stolen checks in the back seat. The policeman arrested all six men.
  • Based on that evidence, a search warrant was granted to search Bustamonte’s car, where more stolen checks were found. Bustamonte was arrested and charged with check fraud.
  • The Trial Court convicted Bustamonte of check fraud. He appealed.
    • Bustamonte argued that Alcala only gave his consent because of police coercion, and therefore it was an unreasonable search under the 4th Amendment.
    • Furthermore, Bustamonte argued that Alcala did not know that he could refuse consent and therefore his consent couldn’t possibly have been voluntary.
  • The State Appellate Court upheld the conviction.
    • The State Appellate Court found that the search was not invalidated by any “express or implied assertion of authority.”
  • Bustamonte filed a habeus corpus petition in Federal Court, claiming that the prosecution has the burden of proof of showing that there was no coercion.
  • The Federal Trial Court denied the petition. Bustamonte appealed.
  • The Federal Appellate Court reversed. The State of California appealed.
    • The Federal Appellate Court found that State had to prove not only the absence of police coercion, but also that Alcala knew that he could withhold his consent.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the 4th Amendment and the 14th Amendment require that the State meet the burden of proof that a search based on consent was in fact voluntarily given, and not the result of duress or coercion, express or implied.
    • However, the Court found that the State did not have the burden of proof that a person knew they had the right to refuse consent.
      • The Court said that there were a variety of factors that could be used to judge whether consent had been given voluntarily. One of those factors could be that the person didn’t know they could refuse consent. But that is just one factor, it is not dispostive by itself.
        • “While the state of the accused’s mind and the failure of the police to advise the accused of his rights were certainly factors to be evaluated in assessing the voluntariness of an accused’s responses, they were not in and of themselves determinative.”
    • In this case, the Court found that the State had met their burden of showing that there was consent, therefore the conviction is upheld.
  • Basically, this case means that the police are not required to inform people that they have a right to refuse to consent to a search.
    • The Court distinguished this from Miranda warnings (aka “you have the right to remain silent”), because a Miranda warning comes after an arrest, while a search is more like the basic questioning of a suspect that comes before an arrest.
      • An arrest is an ‘inherently coercive’ situation, while the Court felt that just being questioned by the police was not.
  • The bonus to the consent doctrine for the police is that they do not have to have probable cause.
    • Oddly, virtually everyone asked gives consent, even when they are in possession of contraband. Even people who are driving around with a dead body in the truck will more often than not say yes if the police ask.
      • Probably because they don’t realize they can say no.
    • The unstated reason for this ruling is that telling people that they had the right to say no would make a lot of people say no, and that would hurt law enforcement efforts.
    • The FBI, and some States have adopted a rule that they must give people a warning, presumably because of this issue.
  • Consenting to a search is a waiver of your 4th Amendment rights. Can you waive your constitutional rights?
    • In many criminal law circumstances, people are allowed to waive their rights.
      • E.g. pleading guilty, waiving extradition.
    • But, can you really be said to have waived a right if you didn’t know that you could say no?
    • In most waiver issues, you have to prove that consent was given knowledgably and voluntarily. In this case, the Court dumped the knowledgably requirement.
    • Perhaps the consent doctrine is not predicated on a waiver.
      • A third party can give consent to a search of your property, but they can’t waive your other rights, like your right to extradition.