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UNITED STATES v. VILLAMONTE-MARQUEZ ET AL.

decided: June 17, 1983.

UNITED STATES
v.
VILLAMONTE-MARQUEZ ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Blackmun, Powell, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall, J., joined, and in Part I of which Stevens, J., joined, post, p. 593.

Author: Rehnquist

[ 462 U.S. Page 580]

 JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Congress has provided that "[any] officer of the customs may at any time go on board of any vessel . . . at any place in the United States . . . and examine the manifest and other documents and papers . . . and to this end may hail and stop such vessel . . . and use all necessary force to compel compliance." 46 Stat. 747, as amended, 19 U. S. C. § 1581(a).*fn1 We are asked to decide whether the Fourth Amendment is offended when customs officials, acting pursuant to this

[ 462 U.S. Page 581]

     statute and without any suspicion of wrongdoing, board for inspection of documents a vessel that is located in waters providing ready access to the open sea.*fn2

[ 462 U.S. Page 582]

     Near midday on March 6, 1980, customs officers, accompanied by Louisiana state policemen, were patrolling the Calcasieu River Ship Channel, some 18 miles inland from the gulf coast, when they sighted the Henry Morgan II, a 40-foot sailboat, anchored facing east on the west side of the channel. The Calcasieu River Ship Channel is a north-south waterway connecting the Gulf of Mexico with Lake Charles, Louisiana. Lake Charles, located in the southwestern corner of Louisiana, is a designated Customs Port of Entry in the Houston, Texas Region. While there is access to the channel from Louisiana's Calcasieu Lake, the channel is a separate thoroughfare to the west of the lake which all vessels moving between Lake Charles and the open sea of the Gulf must traverse.

Shortly after sighting the sailboat, the officers also observed a large freighter moving north in the channel. The freighter was creating a huge wake and as it passed the Henry Morgan II the wake caused the smaller vessel to rock violently from side to side. The patrol boat then approached the sailboat from the port side and passed behind its stern.

[ 462 U.S. Page 583]

     On the stern the name of the vessel, the "Henry Morgan II," was displayed along with its home port, "Basilea." The officers sighted one man, respondent Hamparian, on deck. Officer Wilkins twice asked if the sailboat and crew were all right. Hamparian shrugged his shoulders in an unresponsive manner.

Officer Wilkins, accompanied by Officer Dougherty of the Louisiana State Police, then boarded the Henry Morgan II and asked to see the vessel's documentation. Hamparian handed Officer Wilkins what appeared to be a request to change the registration of a ship from Swiss registry to French registry, written in French and dated February 6, 1980. It subsequently was discovered that the home port designation of "Basilea" was Latin for Basel, Switzerland; the vessel was, however, of French registry.

While examining the document, Officer Wilkins smelled what he thought to be burning marihuana. Looking through an open hatch, Wilkins observed burlap-wrapped bales that proved to be marihuana. Respondent Villamonte-Marquez was on a sleeping bag atop of the bales. Wilkins arrested both Hamparian and Villamonte-Marquez and gave them Miranda warnings. A subsequent search revealed some 5,800 pounds of marihuana on the Henry Morgan II, stored in almost every conceivable place including the forward, mid, and aft cabins, and under the seats in the open part of the vessel.

A jury found respondents guilty of conspiring to import marihuana in violation of 21 U. S. C. § 963, importing marihuana in violation of 21 U. S. C. § 952(a), conspiring to possess marihuana with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U. S. C. § 846, and possessing marihuana with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U. S. C. § 841(a)(1). The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of conviction, finding that the officers' boarding of the Henry Morgan II "was not reasonable under the fourth amendment" because the boarding occurred in the absence of "a reasonable

[ 462 U.S. Page 584]

     suspicion of a law violation." 652 F.2d 481, 488 (1981). Because of a conflict among the Circuits and the importance of the question presented as it affects the enforcement of customs laws, we granted certiorari. 457 U.S. 1104 (1982).*fn3 We now reverse.

In 1790 the First Congress enacted a comprehensive statute "to provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels." Act of Aug. 4, 1970, 1 Stat. 145. Section 31 of that Act provided in pertinent part as follows:

"That it shall be lawful for all collectors, naval officers, surveyors, inspectors, and the officers of the revenue cutters herein after mentioned, to go on board of ships or vessels in any part of the United States, or within four leagues of the coast thereof, if bound to the United States, whether in or out of their respective districts, for the purposes of demanding the manifests aforesaid, and of examining and searching the said ships or vessels . . . ." 1 Stat. 164.

This statute appears to be the lineal ancestor of the provision of present law upon which the Government relies to sustain

[ 462 U.S. Page 585]

     the boarding of the vessel in this case. Title 19 U. S. C. § 1581(a) provides that "[any] officer of the customs may at any time go on board of any vessel . . . at any place in the United States or within the customs waters . . . and examine the manifest and other documents and papers . . . ."

[ 462 U.S. Page 586]

     The Government insists that the language of the statute clearly authorized the boarding of the vessel in this case. The respondents do not seriously dispute this contention, but contend that even though authorized by statute the boarding here violated the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures contained in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We of course agree with respondents' argument that "no Act of Congress can authorize a violation of the Constitution." Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266, 272 (1973). But we also agree with the Government's contention that the enactment of this statute by the same Congress that promulgated the constitutional Amendments that ultimately became the Bill of Rights gives the statute an impressive historical pedigree.*fn4 United Page 586} States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606 (1977). As long ago as the decision in Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616 (1886), this Court said:

[ 462 U.S. Page 587]

     "The seizure of stolen goods is authorized by the common law . . . and the like seizures have been authorized by our own revenue acts from the commencement of the government. The first statute passed by Congress to regulate the collection of duties, the act of July 31, 1789, 1 Stat. 29, 43, contains provisions to this effect. As this Page 587} Act was passed by the same Congress which proposed for adoption the original amendments to the Constitution, it is clear that the members of that body did not regard searches and seizures of this kind as 'unreasonable,' and they are not embraced within the prohibition of the amendment." Id., at 623 (emphasis supplied; footnote omitted).

In holding that the boarding of the vessel without articulable suspicion violated the Fourth Amendment, the Court of Appeals relied on several of its own decisions and on our decision in United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975), where we said:

"Except at the border and its functional equivalents, officers on roving patrol may stop vehicles only if they are aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts, that reasonably warrant suspicion that the vehicles contain aliens who may be illegally in the country." Id., at 884.

We think that two later decisions also bear on the question before us.

In United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976), we upheld the authority of the Border Patrol to maintain permanent checkpoints at or near intersections of important roads leading away from the border at which a vehicle would be stopped for brief questioning of its occupants "even though there is no reason to believe the particular vehicle contains illegal ...


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