Court gives police wider latitude to look for drugs Motives for search make no difference, justices say

June 11, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Police who think that a car carrying "suspicious" individuals may have drugs in it, but have no real proof of that, may use a minor traffic violation as a reason to stop the car and look, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

If the officers have a valid basis for stopping the car, the court said, it makes no difference that their purpose is to check for illegal narcotics and that they lack the basis for a drug check.

Courts, the justices said, are not to use the Fourth Amendment's protection for the privacy of motorists to second-guess the "ulterior motives" that police may have for making a traffic stop.

In another part of the ruling, the court said it does not matter under the Constitution that police violate their own city's police regulations against using narcotics officers to make traffic stops. The Constitution, it said, cannot be based upon what one city's rules require.

The court reached rare unanimity in deciding the case. Usually, cases involving the scope of Fourth Amendment rights divide the justices sharply.

The case grew out of a police stop of a car in the District of Columbia three years ago. Two officers of the city's vice squad, in plainclothes, were in an unmarked car in an area known for drug activity. They passed a truck with a temporary license plate, with two occupants; the driver was looking down into the lap of the passenger. Those signs apparently aroused the officers' suspicions, but they had no hard evidence that the truck had drugs in it.

The truck stayed at a traffic light, blocking traffic for a time. When the police made a U-turn to head back toward the truck, it turned suddenly and moved off at what the police thought was excessive speed.

When it stopped for a red light, the officers got out of their car and approached; one officer said later it was only to give a warning about traffic violations.

As a policeman reached the window of the truck, he saw two plastic bags containing what he thought was crack cocaine in the lap of the passenger, Michael A. Whren. He and the driver, James L. Brown, were arrested. The crack and other drugs also found in a search were used to convict Whren and Brown of drug crimes.

In challenging their convictions, the two argued that the officers had acted unconstitutionally in stopping the car in hopes of finding drugs, that their actions were only a pretext to look for drugs.

They urged the court to rule that if a traffic incident would not normally lead a police officer to make a stop, the use of such a stop to justify an inspection for drugs should not be allowed under the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The court rejected that plea, ruling in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia that the court had long allowed police to make traffic stops anytime they had reason to think there was a violation of traffic laws. Any "ulterior motives," the court said, do not invalidate the stop itself and thus do not make the later drug check invalid.

Fugitives' property

In a second unanimous ruling, the court decided that someone who leaves the country to avoid being prosecuted does not lose all right to challenge in U.S. courts the government's effort to seize property related to the crime.

The court overturned a federal appeals court ruling that a fugitive from justice loses all right to go into courts back home to object to the seizure of property tainted by crime.

The court acted in a case involving a California-born man, Brian J. Degen, who also holds Swiss citizenship. While under investigation for a possible role in a marijuana trafficking ring, Degen left the country and began living in Switzerland.

Later, he was charged with crimes related to his alleged leadership of that ring. But, because the United States and Switzerland do not allow each other to extradite suspects, Degen could not be forced to return for trial on the criminal charges.

He did send a lawyer into court, however, when federal prosecutors moved to seize several million dollars' worth of property in three states, allegedly traceable to the marijuana ring. Lower courts threw out the challenge because of Degen's fugitive status.

The Supreme Court ruled that removing his right to try to protect his property was "too blunt an instrument" to safeguard the authority of U.S. courts. The forfeiture case could still go ahead without delay, it said.

Assisted suicide

The court postponed any assisted suicides in Washington state, even though a law against the practice in that state has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in March that patients who will not recover have a constitutional right, if mentally competent, "to hasten their own deaths" with the aid of drugs prescribed by a doctor.

That ruling was to have taken effect at the end of last month. But Justice Sandra Day O'Connor blocked it until the full court could consider the state's request for a longer delay. Yesterday, the full court delayed the appeals court ruling until after the court takes final action on the case. If it agrees to hear the case, a final decision may not come until next June.

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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