The DEA agents waited until Place had retrieved his luggage and called a limousine before approaching him in New York. The DEA agents again asked Place for his identification, which he produced. The agents discovered that Place had no outstanding warrants. They then asked to search Place's luggage, but Place declined to allow the agents to do so. The agents then told Place they were going to take the luggage to a federal judge to obtain a warrant to search the luggage, and that Place was free to accompany them if he chose to. An hour and a half later, the agents had taken Place's bags to Kennedy airport and allowed a trained narcotics detection dog to perform a "sniff" test. The dog detected the presence of narcotics. This was late on a Friday afternoon; the agents retained the luggage over the weekend until Monday, when they obtained a warrant to search the luggage. They discovered over a kilogram of cocaine.
Place was indicted for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. In the district court, Place moved to suppress the cocaine, arguing that the warrantless seizure of the luggage violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The district court disagreed, reasoning instead that the police only needed reasonable suspicion to seize Place's bags, which they had. Place pleaded guilty to the possession charge, but reserved the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed, holding that the prolonged seizure of Place's bags violated the principles of Terry v. Ohio. The U.S. Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case.
The Court first had to consider whether, as the lower courts had assumed, the framework of Terry v. Ohio, under which a limited detention of a person can be justified in the face of reasonable suspicion, can apply to the temporary seizure of a person's luggage. Indeed, when government agents have reason to suspect (but not probable cause to believe) that, for instance, a traveler's luggage contains narcotics, it has a substantial interest in confirming or denying that suspicion. In order to dispel that suspicion, the Court reasoned a brief seizure of the luggage could be justified. This brief seizure could not encompass a full-blown "search," just as a Terry stop may not increase in seriousness to a full-blown arrest, unless probable cause to perform the search arose during the brief detention.
In this case, the whole reason the DEA agents seized Place's luggage was so they could subject it to the dog sniff. The sniff, in turn, would violate Place's Fourth Amendment rights if it constituted a "search." A "search" is an unwarranted intrusion on a person's objectively reasonable expectation of privacy. But the sniff does not require opening the luggage; it does not expose things that are not contraband to public view. The sniff is thus far more limited than the typical search. Moreover, the sniff merely reveals the presence or absence of narcotics. Thus, it is sui generis, and does not constitute a "search" under the Fourth Amendment.
However, in this case, even though the DEA agents did not "search" Place's luggage when they subjected it to the dog sniff, their seizure of the luggage was unreasonable because it exceeded the limits of a Terry-type investigative stop. The length of time the agents had possession of Place's luggage was too great—90 minutes before the dog sniff had been conducted. Also, the agents knew what time Place's plane was scheduled to land at LaGuardia, and thus had ample time to arrange their investigation accordingly, so that taking Place's luggage from LaGuardia to Kennedy airports should not have been necessary. Thus, the seizure of Place's luggage was unreasonable in this case.
Justice Blackmun also felt that this case was not appropriate for deciding the status of dog sniffs under the Fourth Amendment. For one thing, Blackmun observed, Place had not raised the issue in either the district court or the Second Circuit. For another, Blackmun agreed with Brennan that it was not necessary to decide whether a dog sniff is a "search" in order to decide the case, because the seizure of Place's luggage was unreasonable in any event.