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High Court Backs Agent Who Stopped Motorist

Ruling: In case of drug smuggling, justices say police need only a reasonable suspicion, not evidence of a crime, to pull over a vehicle.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court reaffirmed Tuesday that police have broad leeway in deciding when to pull over vehicles and that they may rely on innocent-looking actions as grounds for their suspicions.

Even slowing down at the sight of a parked squad car or driving a minivan can be a factor that weighs in favor of stopping a motorist, the justices said.

The unanimous ruling revived marijuana-smuggling charges against an Arizona man whose slow-moving minivan was stopped by a Border Patrol agent near the Mexican border.

More significant, the high court used the case to reiterate that there is no "neat set of legal rules" to say when officers have the required "reasonable suspicion" to stop a motorist.

The pretext must be more than "a mere hunch" but can be well less than actual evidence of wrongdoing, said Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Officers can rely on a "common-sense inference" from what they observe to decide when a vehicle should be pulled over. And judges should not casually second-guess these decisions, Rehnquist added.

The ruling marked another Rehnquist reversal of an opinion written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles, one of the liberal leaders of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rehnquist and Reinhardt differ on their interpretations of the 4th Amendment, which forbids "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government.

Decision Reverses Los Angeles Judge

Rehnquist has insisted that judges should not tie the hands of police officers. Reinhardt has argued that judges should protect the privacy of pedestrians and motorists by limiting the police from conducting searches without warrants.

They clashed over a case that began on a January afternoon in 1998 in southern Arizona. Agent Clinton Stoddard noticed a minivan traveling on a dirt road north of Douglas, Ariz. Smugglers frequently take such back roads to avoid checkpoints on the highways.

When the minivan approached Stoddard, it slowed abruptly and the driver sat rigid, avoiding eye contact. In the back seat were children whose knees were visible, as if they were resting on something large.

When the minivan suddenly turned onto another remote road, the last turn before a checkpoint, the agent decided to stop the vehicle. After questioning the driver, Ralph Arvizu, the agent learned that he lived in a neighborhood known for smuggling and drug-dealing. Stoddard then searched the minivan and found a duffel bag with 128 pounds of marijuana.

When Arvizu appealed his case, the 9th Circuit ruled that it involved an "illegal stop" because the agent had relied on too many innocent actions as grounds for stopping the motorist.

"Slowing down after spotting a law-enforcement vehicle is an entirely normal response," Reinhardt wrote, and does not indicate criminal activity. The same is true of driving a minivan and of failing to make eye contact with a police officer. Moreover, the driver had committed no traffic offenses, he said.

It is important that courts "clearly delimit" the factors that warrant the "stopping and questioning of citizens who are minding their business," Reinhardt wrote.

Civil libertarians have faulted the high court for giving police unchecked authority to stop vehicles. This can lead to "racial profiling" against minority motorists and can result in annoying and unwarranted stops, they say.

ACLU Study Used by Defendant's Side

One brief filed with the court noted that a study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that of 34,000 highway stops by the California Highway Patrol in 1997, only 2% resulted in arrests.

But the Supreme Court took up the government's appeal in U.S. vs. Arvizu, 00-1519, and reversed the 9th Circuit. The chief justice said that searches should be judged by "the totality of the circumstances" and that a variety of factors tipped the balance in favor of stopping Arvizu. He was driving along a dirt road on a route used by smugglers and taking actions that seemed intended to avoid the police.

"Undoubtedly, each of these factors alone is susceptible to innocent explanation," Rehnquist said. "Taken together, we believe they sufficed to form a particularized and objective basis for Stoddard's stopping the vehicle."

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