Schneckloth v. Bustamonte

412 U.S. 218 (1973)

U.S. Supreme Court

On Tuesday January 31, 1967 in Sunnyvale, California at 2:40 a.m. Police Officer James Rand observed an automobile traveling at him with one headlight. He made a U-turn and then observed its license plate light was burned out. There were six men in the vehicle. At 2:40 a.m. anywhere this creates a level of suspicion. Joe Gonzales was the drive and Joe Alcala and Robert Bustamonte, were in the front seat. Three unidentified older men were seated in the rear. Officer Rand asked Mr. Gonzales for his license he stated he did not have one.  Officer Rand asked if any of the other five had any evidence of identification. Only Mr. Alcala produced a license, and he explained that the car was his brother’s. As is common today, the only licensed driver in the car was not driving.  Officer Bissell and Captain Crabtree arrived, and all six occupants were removed from the car.  Officer Rand asked Mr. Alcala if he could search the car and he replied “Sure, go ahead.”.  Testimony revealed that none of the occupants were blocked in, the officers did not intimidate the men and no threats, to include arrest, were made.  After Mr. Alcala gave consent, Officer Rand and Captain Crabtree searched the car while Officer Bissell watched over the six men standing near.  Wadded up under the left rear seat [a 1958 Ford Sedan would have open space under the rear seats] three Speedway Car Wash checks each payable for $67.34 and ‘signed’ by Charles Kehoe were discovered.  One was payable to Robert Gomez and two were payable to Jino Anthony.  Mr. Gonzales was cited for the inoperable headlight, inoperable light over rear plate and no driver’s license.

An investigation discovered that on Thursday January 19, 1967 the Speedway Car Wash was burglarized in Mountainview, California which is the next city to the North and West of Sunnvale, California.  Several items were stolen in the burglary to include blank checks and a check writing machine known as a Check Protector. Det. John Tomac crafted one search warrant that included a 1956 Oldsmobile bearing CGN 877 at 622 North Bayview Avenue, Sunnyvale California and a 1960 Renault bearing SCN 462 at 2780 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, California. Stolen checks and the Check Protector were found inside of the Oldsmobile and stolen checks were found inside of the Renault; all were stolen from the Speedway Car Wash in Mountainview, California.  Today, a separate search warrant for each location would be required.

A search warrant was served on a 1956 Oldsmobile bearing CGN 877 at 622 North Bayview Avenue, Sunnyvale California.  This is a modern day photo of the address where the check protector – a check writing machine of the 1960’s was found inside the Oldsmobile.

Mr. Bustamonte was tried and convicted in the California trial court.  His conviction was upheld by the California Appeals Court.  The California Supreme Court denied his appeal.  Once imprisoned he filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus seeking release.  The Federal District Court denied his request, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals accepted his case and overturned his conviction on the grounds of that Mr. Alcala’s consent was not voluntary because he was not informed of his right to refuse.  The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case.  Oral arguments were heard on October 10, 1972 and on May 29, 1973 they held in a six to three vote Voluntariness is a question of fact to be determined from all the circumstances, and while the subject’s knowledge of a right to refuse is a factor to be taken into account, the prosecution is not required to demonstrate such knowledge as a prerequisite to establishing a voluntary consent.”. Id at 248 – 249.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The Bustamonte case was decided seven years after Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) see Miranda both a Noun and a Verb, June 15, 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court analysis in this case primarily focused on whether Officer Rand had a constitutional requirement to provide Mr. Alcala a Fourth Amendment warning analogous to the Fifth Amendment Miranda This would have resulted in a ‘Bustamonte’ warning each time a law enforcement officer asked a citizen to search their person, car, belongings, or home if it was a consensual request.  That is why this case is SO important.  This could have seriously changed the landscape of consensual searches.  This most significant change came within two U.S. Supreme Court justice votes!
  1. The doctrine of consent will be evaluated on three elements; Knowingly, Voluntarily and Intelligently. The suspect must waive all three of these elements.  The consent analysis will be evaluated on a totality of the circumstances. For law enforcement the most challenged of these elements is voluntariness.
  1. Today, like roadside on January 31, 1967, voluntariness will be a question for the courts to decide. This will be a key factor for the defense to focus on during a Suppression Hearing or trial.  If the consent was not voluntary and there was no probable cause, the search will be unlawful, and the evidence will be inadmissible.  This is why it is always best to get the consent by the suspect on video, preferably body camera and secondarily, cruiser camera.


Information for this article obtained from the U.S. Supreme Court case, People v. Bustamonte, 270 Cal.App.2d 648 (1969), Bustamonte v. Scheckloth, 448 F.2d 699 (1971) and Oral Arguments, Tuesday October 10, 1972 in Scheckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973).

Does your agency train on the doctrine of Consent?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.