4/24/2008Supreme Court Expands Traffic Search Authority of Police
US Supreme Court ruling allows police to search motorists during illegal traffic stops.
Police may keep evidence obtained during illegal traffic stops under a unanimous US Supreme Court ruling released yesterday. The high court justices considered the case of Virginia motorist David Lee Moore who had been pulled over on February 20, 2003 by a pair of Portsmouth police officers for driving on a suspended license. The officers proceeded to arrest Moore, in violation of a Virginia law that only authorizes police to issue a ticket in such circumstances.
Because Moore was arrested, he was subjected to a search. The officers found he was carrying a small amount of crack cocaine and $516 in cash. This initially led to a drug conviction and five-year prison sentence, but Moore's case bounced back and forth in lower courts until 2006 when the Virginia Supreme Court overturned the conviction on Fourth Amendment grounds.
With the final say on the matter, the US Supreme Court upheld Moore's conviction yesterday. Writing for majority, Justice Antonin Scalia crafted a ruling from a strict interpretation of the Fourth Amendment's original intent. Scalia suggested that the founders sought to limit the federal power to issue open-ended warrants that essentially authorized the British to search anyone at any time. The amendment was never intended to enforce particular state or federal laws.
"Founding-era citizens were skeptical of using the rules for search and seizure set by government actors as the index of reasonableness," Scalia wrote. "Moreover, even though several state constitutions also prohibited unreasonable searches and seizures, citizens who claimed officers had violated state restrictions on arrest did not claim that the violations also ran afoul of the state constitutions."
The test for Scalia is whether the arrest was reasonable on its own merits. Otherwise, what would be permissible as a matter of federal constitutional law would vary from state to state as individual laws differed in each. Portsmouth police easily won the reasonableness test.
"In a long line of cases, we have said that when an officer has probable cause to believe a person committed even a minor crime in his presence, the balancing of private and public interests is not in doubt," Scalia wrote. "The arrest is constitutionally reasonable."
The result of this line of cases, as the Alaska Court of Appeals suggested last Friday, is that police have open-ended authority to stop and search anyone at any time on the highway.
"It is virtually impossible to drive a motor vehicle in this country and not unwittingly commit some infraction of the motor vehicle laws," the Alaska court wrote (view ruling).
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief in the Moore case, suggested that this outcome further dilutes the Fourth Amendment requirement to obtain a search warrant prior to searches.
"The Virginia state officers involved in this case concededly violated state law and aggressively exploited constitutional law exceptions designed for exigencies in circumstances where there was no exigency, all in a transparent attempt to avoid the Fourth Amendment's requirement that they obtain a warrant before searching respondent David Lee Moore," the ACLU wrote.
Scalia argued that the proper remedy to the concerns raised by this decision would be for the states to adopt their own laws imposing stronger protections than that offered by the Fourth Amendment. A full copy of the decision is available in a 140k PDF file at the source link below.