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United States v. Yang

April 04, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 99 CR 677--Harry D. Leinenweber, Judge.

Before Manion, Rovner, and Evans, Circuit Judges.

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

Argued January 7, 2002

Defendant Teng Yang appeals his conviction under 21 U.S.C. sec. 952(a) for importation of opium into the United States. Mr. Yang pleaded guilty to the charge after the district court conducted an evidentiary hearing and denied his motion to suppress evidence of drugs seized at the airport after he had passed through customs. Mr. Yang expressly reserved the right to appeal the district court's denial of his motion to suppress and now appeals that order. We affirm.

I. Background

Teng Yang ("Teng") and his cousin Lee Pao Yang ("Lee Pao") flew into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on September 7, 1999, from Laos connecting through Tokyo, Japan. Both men were booked on an American Airlines flight from O'Hare to St. Paul, Minnesota. Teng and Lee Pao are both American citizens who had traveled to Laos to attend Teng's father's funeral. But when they returned to the United States from Laos, their suitcases had been packed with clothes which had been soaked in an opium solution and then dried. Teng passed through customs at O'Hare without incident. His suitcase was x-rayed at the agricultural inspection area, but his luggage was not searched by hand. After leaving the customs area, Teng took his luggage and proceeded to the American Airlines terminal, less than a mile away, via the O'Hare airport tram.

His cousin was less fortunate. Lee Pao was detained randomly for an enforcement exam and the inspectors discovered some unusually stiff clothing made of sweat-pant material in his suitcase. The clothing, which had a very strong odor, chemically tested positive for opiates. Lee Pao was arrested on the scene and, following questioning by the customs officials, he admitted that he was traveling with another person. American Airlines officials confirmed that Teng was booked on the same itinerary as his cousin. The customs agents then decided to intercept Teng based on Lee Pao's admission that they were traveling together, the fact that drugs were found in Lee Pao's bag, and the fact that both men were traveling on the same itinerary from Laos, a drug source country, to St. Paul, a drug destination city. They did not obtain a search or arrest warrant. The customs agents requested that the baggage crew separate Teng's baggage from the other luggage on the flight to St. Paul. The agents then proceeded to the American Airlines terminal and announced Teng's name over the loudspeaker. When no one responded, agents proceeded to search the terminal. One of the agents, Inspector Joseph Marcocig, recognized Teng, as he had seen him in line at customs with Lee Pao. Teng was taken down to the tarmac where he identified his luggage. He then agreed to return to the international terminal for questioning. The agents handcuffed him pursuant to customs policy for transportation of individuals in a vehicle ("for [their] protection and his") and returned to the international terminal. A search of his bags revealed more opium-soaked clothes.

Teng and Lee Pao were charged in an indictment with conspiracy to import opium and importing large quantities of opium. Teng and Lee Pao filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized at the airport, which the court denied after an evidentiary hearing. In February 2001, Teng pleaded guilty to count three of the indictment which charged him with the importation of 2,737 grams of opium. In doing so, he reserved the right to appeal the trial court's denial ruling on his motion to suppress. The district court then sentenced him to 24 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. He now appeals the district court's denial of his motion to suppress the evidence found in his suitcase.

II. Analysis

In reviewing a district's court's ruling on a motion to suppress, this court reviews questions of law de novo andfindings of fact and reasonable inferences drawn from those findings for clear error. United States v. Peters, 153 F.3d 445, 451 (7th Cir. 1998). Teng argues that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress, claiming that the customs agents searched his suitcase in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Alternatively, he argues that his detention at the American Airlines terminal constituted an illegal arrest, not supported by probable cause, and therefore the evidence must be excluded as it was a search incident to an unlawful arrest.

A. Extended Border Search

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const., Amend IV. Generally a search is not reasonable unless the government has a warrant supported by probable cause or there must be an exception to the warrant requirement. An administrative border search has long been recognized as such an exception. United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606, 619 (1977). Thus an administrative border search is constitutional so long as it is reasonable. See United States v. Chaidez, 919 F.2d 1193, 1196 (7th Cir. 1991). Routine searches without a warrant at this country's international borders are per se reasonable. Ramsey, 431 U.S. at 616. Courts have predicated this broad power to conduct searches at international borders on the sovereign's legitimate interest in protecting its borders. Id. See also United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 887 (1975) (Rehnquist concurring) (noting that a border search without probable cause is necessary for national protection).*fn1

O'Hare Airport is an international gateway into the United States, and incoming passengers from international ports are subject to border searches because the airport is the functional equivalent of an international border. United States v. Johnson, 991 F.2d 1287, 1290 (7th Cir. 1993) (holding that weight, flex and scratch tests performed on luggage by a customs agent at O'Hare were routine). Under the "functional equivalent" doctrine, routine border searches are constitutionally permissible at places other than actual borders where travelers frequently enter or exit the country. See United States v. Almeida-Sanchez, 413 U.S. 266, 272-73 (1973). Thus even though Chicago is not an international border, searches at customs at O'Hare are permissible under the functional equivalent doctrine.

In this case, Teng was routinely searched at customs and no contraband was discovered in his luggage. It was not until he traveled to a different terminal that other circumstances caused customs agents to develop suspicion that he might be smuggling drugs into the country. Teng argues that because the search that revealed the contraband did not occur at customs, it was not a constitutionally permissible border search. His argument is that once a traveler has passed through customs, left the international terminal, proceeded to a separate terminal in the airport and checked his bags onto another flight, the opportunity for a "routine" border search has passed. The government contends, on appeal, that even though Teng had passed through customs, the search should still be described as a routine border search, relying on United States v. Ramos, 645 F.2d 318, 319-21 (5th Cir. 1981). In Ramos, a ...

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