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United States v. Hartwell

January 31, 2006



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alito, Circuit Judge


Argued: May 24, 2005

Before: SCIRICA, Chief Judge, ALITO and RENDELL, Circuit Judges.


Christian Hartwell set off a metal detector at a security checkpoint in an airport. Transportation Security Administration ("TSA") agents then used a magnetic wand to pinpoint any metal on his person. They detected something in Hartwell's pocket and asked to see it. Ultimately, they discovered that the object was crack cocaine and placed Hartwell under arrest. Hartwell argues that the drugs should have been suppressed because the search offended the Fourth Amendment.*fn1 We hold that it did not.


Hartwell arrived at the Philadelphia International Airport on Saturday, May 17, 2003, intending to catch a flight to Phoenix. He reached the security checkpoint, placed his hand luggage on a conveyor belt to be x-rayed, and approached the metal detector. Hartwell's luggage was scanned without incident, but he set off the magnetometer when he walked through. He was told to remove all items from his pockets and try again. Hartwell removed several items-including a large quantity of cash-from his pocket, and passed through again.

Transportation Security Administration agent Carlos Padua took Hartwell aside after he passed through the metal detector a second time.*fn2 Padua used a handheld wand-like magnetometer to discover what set off the metal detector. The wand revealed a solid object in Hartwell's cargo pants pocket.*fn3 Padua asked what it was, but Hartwell did not respond.

What occurred next is the subject of some dispute. Hartwell claims that he was escorted to a private screening room near the checkpoint, where he refused Padua's repeated requests to reveal the contents of his pocket. Frustrated by Hartwell's unresponsiveness, Padua eventually reached into Hartwell's pocket and pulled out a package of drugs. He immediately called the Philadelphia police, who searched Hartwell, found two additional packages of drugs and about $3000 in cash, and promptly arrested him.

The government claims that neither Padua nor the police officer ever reached into Hartwell's pocket without his consent. According to Agent Padua, the following occurred. After requesting private screening, Hartwell refused several requests to empty his pocket, nervously backed away from Agent Padua while he was being questioned, and suddenly dropped his pants. This suspicious behavior prompted Padua to call for backup. A police officer arrived and asked Hartwell to remove any items from his pocket, and Hartwell complied by handing over one package of drugs. He then feigned falling to the floor and dropped a second package of drugs.

The District Court found it unnecessary to resolve these conflicting accounts, finding that the search was justified based on undisputed facts. In particular, the Court observed that "[t]here is no dispute that defendant triggered the magnetometer at least once and that Padua attempted to resolve the alarm through the use of the wand." United States v. Hartwell, 296 F. Supp. 2d 596, 603--04 (E.D. Pa. 2003). The Court also noted that Hartwell "does not dispute that he was instructed to remove all metal objects from his person prior to each screening and that he was specifically requested to remove the items in his lower pocket several times." Id. at 604. In the District Court's view, these circumstances justified the officers' behavior, regardless of whose version of the rest of the story was true. "Whether defendant voluntarily produced the drugs or whether defendant was frisked," the Court stated, "the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment." Id. at 603.

Although the District Court had no difficulty reaching this result, it recognized that courts have not settled on a single framework for analyzing warrantless searches at airport checkpoints. The Court therefore considered three separate justifications for Hartwell's search, and found each sufficient. The Court first held that the search passed muster under the Fourth Amendment's "general proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures." Id. at 602 (quoting United States v. Albarado, 495 F.2d 799, 804 (2d Cir. 1974)). See also United States v. Lopez, 328 F. Supp. 1077 (E.D.N.Y. 1971). The Court next sustained the search under the theory that it was a "consensual administrative search[]." Hartwell, 296 F. Supp. 2d at 602 (citing United States v. Davis, 482 F.2d 893 (9th Cir. 1973)). Finally, the Court stated that "by submitting to the screening process, defendant impliedly ...

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