Do Detention Laws Like Those in “The Mule” Currently Exist in the USA?

The most significant precedent-setting case similar to The Mule (2014) in United States history was the 1985 case of United States v. Montoya de Hernandez.

Hernandez arrived in Los Angeles on a flight from Colombia, where customs officials suspected her of being a balloon swallower. Her abdomen was swollen (she claimed to be pregnant) and officials sought a court order for a pregnancy test. In the meantime, she was detained for 16 hours. During that time, she was offered the option of returning to Colombia (which she opted for, but there was no flight available for her), submitting to an x-ray, or remaining in detention until producing a bowel movement. She refused to use the restroom, and after failing the pregnancy test, passed a few balloons filled with cocaine. An examination resulted in the extraction of 88 cocaine-filled balloons.

Her conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming her 4th Amendment rights (the amendment that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause) were violated. The Supreme Court decided the detainment and search were not without just cause, which resulted in the following holding:

“The detention of a traveler at the border, beyond the scope of a routine customs search and inspection, is justified at its inception if customs agents, considering all the facts surrounding the traveler and her trip, reasonably suspect that the traveler is smuggling contraband in her alimentary canal; here, the facts, and their rational inferences, known to the customs officials clearly supported a reasonable suspicion that respondent was an alimentary canal smuggler.”

The Supreme Court decided Hernandez’s discomfort during detention was her own fault, since she’s the one who decided to swallow 88 balloons of cocaine.

“Under the circumstances, respondent’s detention, while long, uncomfortable, and humiliating, was not unreasonably long. Alimentary canal smuggling cannot be detected in the amount of time in which other illegal activity may be investigated through brief stops. When respondent refused an x-ray as an alternative to simply awaiting her bowel movement, the customs inspectors were left with only two practical alternatives: detain her for such time as necessary to confirm their suspicions or turn her loose into the interior of the country carrying the reasonably suspected contraband drugs. Moreover, both the length of respondent’s detention and its discomfort resulted solely from the method that she chose to smuggle illicit drugs into this country. And in the presence of an articulable suspicion of alimentary canal smuggling, the customs officials were not required by the Fourth Amendment to pass respondent and her cocaine-filled balloons into the interior.” (Pp. 473 U. S. 542-544.)

United States customs officials are therefore allowed to detain suspected Mules and hold them as long as necessary to decide whether or not they are indeed holding drug packets within their system.