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Supreme Court puts brakes on car searches

The justices not only clarified the rules on police searches of vehicles, they showed that the desire to hold officers accountable to the Constitution crosses ideological lines.

April 22, 2009

Even in Los Angeles, a man's car isn't his castle. For reasons of public safety, motorists have to put up with some invasions of privacy that the law doesn't make them endure at home. But the U.S. Supreme Court reassuringly ruled Tuesday that even when the site of a search has wheels, police must abide by the 4th Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Since 1981, the court has allowed police to search a suspect's vehicle "incident to his arrest," even without a warrant. The justification for such an exception is obvious: During an arrest, a suspect may reach for a concealed weapon or try to destroy evidence. But with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, police have exploited the exception to conduct open-ended searches.

That was the case with an Arizona man named Rodney Gant. In 1999, Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed and locked inside a police car. While he was safely disposed of, officers searched his car. Not for the first time, an illegal search yielded results. Police found cocaine inside the pocket of a jacket in the back seat, and Gant was convicted of drug possession. The Arizona Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that the evidence should have been excluded.

On Tuesday, by a 5-4 vote that scrambled usual alliances, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens concluded: "A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found in the vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals." Stevens' opinion was signed not only by fellow liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter but by conservatives Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.

Critics of the decision will point out that Gant did possess illegal drugs. But the test of whether a search is legal can't be whether it happens to reveal evidence of wrongdoing. That would subvert what Stevens called "the central concern underlying the 4th Amendment -- the concern about giving police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person's private effects."

Welcome as it is as a clarification of the court's approach to police searches of vehicles, Tuesday's decision also reflects a recognition by both conservative and liberal justices of their obligation to hold law enforcement officers accountable to the Constitution. Police should recognize that the desire for such accountability is shared across the ideological spectrum.

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