WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, trying to answer definitely a constitutional puzzle that has been bothering it for nearly seven decades, ruled yesterday that police have broad authority to open any closed luggage, bag or box they find in a car they search.
Casting aside a 1979 ruling and maybe a 1977 decision as well, and broadening a basic 1925 precedent, the court said the time had come "to adopt one clear-cut rule to govern automobile searches."
This is the rule it chose by a 6-3 vote: If police stop a car because they believe the vehicle or a closed container inside may have something illegal in it, they do not need a court-approved warrant to search the car, or to open and look inside any locked or closed container there.
This marked an expansion of a Prohibition-era ruling, issued in 1925, that for the first time had said that the Constitution's Fourth Amendment allowed police without a warrant to stop and search a car they had reason to be suspicious about, if the car could get away while they went to get a warrant.
That "automobile exception" has been interpreted in varying ways since then by the court. In a 1979 decision -- the one the court overruled outright yesterday -- the justices decided that a closed container found inside a car's trunk, and believed by police to hold something illegal, could not be opened without a warrant.
That 1979 decision had been based on a 1977 ruling in which the court had said that, if luggage was being moved from place to place, and officers seized it before it was carried away in a car, they could not open it until they got a warrant to do so.
That ruling appeared to be in deep doubt, too, as a result of yesterday's new ruling.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who wrote the main opinion, said the court was casting aside the 1977 decision and adopting a single rule for all auto searches, primarily because the court in another decision -- in 1982 -- had undercut the warrant requirement by allowing warrantless searches of an entire car if police thought something illegal was somewhere inside, but they did not know exactly where.
Moreover, Justice Blackmun said, the warrant requirement for searching closed containers in cars had done little to protect privacy but instead had "impeded" law enforcement because police were confused about the extent of their search powers after they stopped a suspicious car.
The new ruling (California vs. Acevedo, No. 89-1690) upheld the marijuana possession guilty plea of a Santa Ana, Calif., man, Charles S. Acevedo.
Police had seen him put a closed brown paper bag in the trunk of his car. Believing that it contained marijuana, they stopped the car, opened its trunk, found the brown bag and opened it.
Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the main dissenting opinion, said that decisions such as this one "will support the conclusion that this court has become a loyal foot soldier in the Executive's fight against crime. . . . No impartial observer could criticize this court for hindering the progress of the war on drugs."
In another ruling yesterday bearing on the war on drugs, the court decided 7-2 that a 1986 federal law allows stiffer sentences for drug dealers when the narcotic they sell weighs very little itself but is carried in other material weighing enough to push the total weight into a more severe punishment category.
Rejecting the argument that Congress meant only to punish trafficking in illegal substances themselves, not in the otherwise innocent "carrier" material, the court said that the five-year-old law was intended to provide for heavier penalties for people dealing in drugs and using methods that made it easier to store, conceal or sell the drugs.
The court went on to rule that this approach was valid under the Constitution.
The specific law it upheld requires a minimum five-year prison term if a drug popularly known as "LSD" or "acid" -- lysergic acid diethylamide -- is sold in more than a 1-gram quantity. LSD in pure form, however, weighs only 0.05 milligram per dose. It would take 20,000 pure doses to make 1 gram. But LSD is commonly sold absorbed in blotter paper in 1,000-dose "hits," and the paper pushes the weight over 1 gram.
The ruling came in a Wisconsin drug trafficking case, Chapman vs. U.S. (No. 90-5744).