Supreme Court Reverses Police Procedure on Warrantless Vehicular Searches

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Washington, DC—In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court stated that police can no longer search the car of a detained suspect if the person poses no immediate danger to officers.

One of the most common instances in which police officers immediately search a person’s car is if they suspect the presence of drugs of drug paraphernalia. Twenty-eight years ago, the Supreme Court authorized warrantless vehicular searches immediately following an arrest, and police procedures quickly adapted.

Justice John Paul Stephens explained that warrantless searches are still acceptable in instances when the car’s passenger compartment is within reach of a suspect whom police have asked to step out of the vehicle. Additionally, if police have reason to think that they’ll find evidence of the crime which led to the arrest, they are authorized to search the vehicle.

“When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable” without a warrant, said Stevens.

Yet Justice Samuel Alito argued that the new ruling is confusing, especially for police officers who detain suspects during a routine traffic stop. “There are cases in which it is unclear whether an arrestee could retrieve a weapon or evidence,” said Alito. “What this rule permits in a variety of situations is entirely unclear.”

Police officers tend to conduct vehicular searches after making sure that the suspect is either handcuffed or detained in the police cruiser, in order to make sure that there are no further safety threats, such as guns, in the car. Evidence found in such searches, especially when a subject is detained or arrested for a relatively minor crime, such as driving on a suspended license, can lead to drug-related charges. In some cases, evidence seized from cars can lead to the arrest of the individual on murder or other serious felony charges.

Opponents of the new ruling are afraid that evidence conducted during these warrantless searches will be lost, and that the court’s decision will make it harder for states to prosecute criminals. Police academy instructors, among others, say that this completely reverses the standard of instruction for officers.

Civil liberties groups complain that police routinely conduct warrantless searches when suspects are already prevented from accessing their vehicles, thus invading their privacy.

The decision passed narrowly, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, David Souter and Clarence Thomas joining Justice Stephens in the majority opinion. The dissenting justices were John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy, as well as Alito.

 

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