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Supremes OK Search Powers

Court says it's OK for cops to search your car even if you're not in it

By Jordan Smith, Fri., June 4, 2004

In a May 24 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police may search the vehicle of a person they've arrested without a warrant if that person was "recently" inside the car – a decision that in essence expands the legal definition of "occupant." "In some circumstances it may be safer and more effective for officers to conceal their presence from a suspect until he has left his vehicle," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority. "Certainly that is a judgement officers should be free to make."

In the case before the court, Marcus Thornton was arrested for drug possession in a parking lot by a Norfolk, Va., police officer who had previously seen Thornton driving and found his actions suspicious. After arresting Thornton, the officer searched his car and found a handgun under the passenger seat, a circumstance that resulted in additional criminal charges. Thornton later challenged the search, arguing that the officer had no right to go through the car since Thornton had already parked and left the vehicle before coming into contact with the officer.

According to the majority opinion, the search was legal because Thornton was recently in the car – a circumstance that, the 7-2 majority decided, was within the scope of earlier decisions where the court had affirmed an officer's right to search a vehicle after arresting its occupants during a traffic stop. Moreover, Rehnquist opined, the search further enhanced officer safety by ensuring that a suspect wouldn't be able to get to a weapon should the suspect somehow break free from custody.

If the court embraced the reasoning offered by Thornton's lawyers, Rehnquist wrote, "an officer approaching a suspect who has just alighted from his vehicle would have to determine whether he actually confronted or signaled confrontation with the suspect while he remained in the car, or whether the suspect exited the vehicle unaware of, and for reasons unrelated to, the officer's presence." Thus, the court ruled, it was better to provide officers with a "clear rule, readily understood" and allow "generalizations" regarding circumstances.

Not so, Justice John Paul Stevens argued in a dissent joined by Justice David Souter. Since Thornton was actually a pedestrian at the time he was arrested, he had a right to expect that the contents of his car would remain private. "In my opinion, [finding additional evidence] must give way to the citizen's constitutionally protected interest in privacy when there is already in place a well-defined rule limiting the permissible scope of a search of an arrested pedestrian," Stevens wrote. "Unwilling to confine the [court's earlier] rule [regarding similar searches] to the narrow class of cases it was designed to address, the Court extends [the] reach [of its previous rulings] without supplying any guidance for the future application of the swollen rule."

Interestingly, while the court ultimately denied Thornton's appeal, three justices – Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Antonin Scalia, and Sandra Day O'Connor – all concurred in judgment while disagreeing with Rehnquist's opinion. According to Scalia, the search was permissible simply because Thornton had already been arrested, and the vehicle could therefore legally be searched for additional evidence related to the arrest. Basing the court's affirmation of the search on the notion that it somehow enhanced officer safety, Scalia wrote, was superfluous at best. "The risk that a suspect handcuffed in the back of a squad car might escape and recover a weapon from his vehicle is surely no greater than the risk that a suspect handcuffed in his residence might escape and recover a weapon from the next room," Scalia wrote – a danger the court had earlier considered "insufficient" to justify a search.

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