Constitutional traffic stops Supreme Court: Minor violation is enough reason for pulling cars over.

June 12, 1996

THE FOURTH Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures can make it more difficult for police to arrest criminals, but it helps protect the innocent from unwarranted harassment by law enforcement officers. Still, determining where the line between reasonable and unreasonable lies is never a simple matter -- and often sharply divides the Supreme Court.

A Fourth Amendment decision this week is notable in part because it comes with a unanimous Supreme Court vote. The ruling hands police a victory by upholding the right of plainclothes officers to stop a vehicle for a minor traffic violation, even if their ulterior motive is to check the car for drugs.

Critics of the ruling say it gives the police reason to make an end run around the Fourth Amendment. Certainly the decision brings no comfort to those who already worry that in attempting to crack down on illegal drugs police stop a disproportionate share of African-American men. But even in light of these racial sensitivities, the court is clearly reluctant to tie the hands of police officers by second-guessing their motives, as long as they can demonstrate a reasonable cause for making a traffic stop.

The ruling stemmed from a Washington, D.C., case in which plainclothes vice officers patrolling a neighborhood known for drug-dealing stopped two young African-American men who paused for an unusually long time at a stop sign, then sped off, making a turn without signaling first. After stopping the vehicle, the police found drugs in it. The two men were later convicted for possession of crack cocaine, marijuana and PCP.

They appealed, arguing that suspicion of drugs was not adequate pretext for a traffic stop for a minor violation, especially by officers whose primary duty was not traffic enforcement. All nine Supreme Court justices disagreed -- indicating that at least in relatively routine cases like this one, the line between reasonable and unreasonable searches is abundantly clear.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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