SW Legal studies in Business

Warrantless Searches at Border Allowed

Appeals court held that border inspections do not require a warrant. A more invasive inspection, involving the targeting of a particular person, is allowed when there is a reasonable basis for the decision to engage in such a search without a warrant.

Topic Criminal Law
Key Words

Search and Seizure; Reasonable Suspicion; Cruise Ship

C A S E   S U M M A R Y

When a cruise ship that had been visiting islands in the Caribbean stopped at the U.S. Virgin Islands, it was boarded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers with drug sniffing dogs. The officers had a list of ten passengers who had suspicious profiles due to their recent travel to countries that are centers of drug activities, prior convictions, and tips from ship personnel or passengers. One of the passengers was Whitted. The ship security officer unlocked the door to his cabin while he was out and the drug dog pointed to several items. One was a shaving cream can with a false bottom that contained heroin. Whitted was convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin. He appealed, contending that the conviction was based on an improper search and seizure.


Affirmed. Searches at the border are an exception from the warrant requirement. Routine border searches may be conducted not only without a warrant but without probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or any suspicion of wrongdoing, because the expectation of privacy is less at the border than in the interior of the country. The search in this case was not routine—Whitted was targeted. The relevant inquiry is not whether a person’s particular conduct—such as traveling on a ship—is innocent or guilty, in determining whether reasonable suspicion exists to conduct a search, but the degree of suspicion that attaches to particular acts. Customs officials had an objective basis to suspect that Whitted could be involved in drug smuggling based on a number of factors. That reasonable suspicion was grounds for a non-routine, invasive border search of his cabin on the ship.


U.S. v. Whitted, 541 F.3d 480 (3rd Cir., 2008)

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