High court makes it easier for police to search cars Officers have no duty to tell motorists they're free to go, justices rule

November 19, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave police wider opportunities yesterday to turn an ordinary traffic stop into a search of a vehicle for drugs or guns, even when an officer has no basis for believing that any will be found.

Without dissent, the court ruled that the Constitution imposes no duty on police to tell motorists that they are free to go once a traffic ticket or warning has been issued.

That is the point at which, legally, a driver is free to drive off. But the court said that fact did not make it unconstitutional for the officer to go beyond the stop and ask questions.

The officer, the court indicated, may go right on -- without a pause -- and ask questions or seek permission to search the vehicle. If a motorist agrees, it would amount to consent, and the search may proceed, the court said.

The justices refused to create a constitutional right for motorists similar to the "Miranda warning" that the court, under a 1966 decision, imposes on police before they may question people they have in custody. Under the Miranda rule, police must inform suspects of their rights to silence and to a lawyer before any questioning.

Ohio's Supreme Court adopted a somewhat similar rule last year to protect motorists who are stopped for traffic violations.

Highway patrol officers in Ohio, the state court said, too often take advantage of motorists who do not know they are free to drive off once an officer has issued a ticket or warning and continues to talk or to question them. One patrolman, in a single year, turned 786 traffic stops into searches of vehicles with the drivers' consent, the state court noted.

The sole purpose of continuing to question the motorist, the state court said, was "to illegally broaden the scope of the original detention" to get a chance to search without having any suspicion to justify it.

Any further questioning, the Ohio court added, "must be preceded by the phrase 'At this time you legally are free to go' or by words of similar import."

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned the Ohio court by a unanimous vote. The justices seemed to have little difficulty reaching their decision. The main opinion, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, contained only a page and a half of discussion of the constitutional issue. The case was decided less than six weeks after a hearing.

Hard-and-fast rules of the kind laid down by the Ohio court, Rehnquist wrote, are inappropriate when the courts weigh police search power under the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches. The only issue, the chief justice said, is whether a search was "reasonable."

Justice John Paul Stevens agreed that no rights warning was required under the Constitution. He supported that part of the outcome, but he dissented on a separate point. Stevens said the Ohio court was right in saying that the motorist in this case had been held so long that he actually was detained and that meant the search was not voluntary.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a separate opinion, agreeing with the ruling but pointing out that the Ohio Supreme Court could -- if it wished -- give motorists a right to notice that they may depart, by basing that right on the Ohio Constitution. Stevens also made that point.

The fact that the Supreme Court rules out a kind of federal constitutional protection does not stop states from creating rights under their own constitutions, Ginsburg and Stevens noted.

The court's ruling came in the case of Robert D. Robinette. He was driving on an interstate highway north of Dayton Aug. 3, 1992, when a county sheriff on drug patrol stopped him for speeding. Robinette was clocked at 69 mph in a 45-mph construction zone.

The patrolman ordered the driver out of the car and told him there would be no ticket. He admonished Robinette about speeding. Then, with no break in the sequence, he asked Robinette whether he was carrying "any weapons of any kind, drugs, anything like that?"

The driver said no, but the officer asked if he could search the car. Robinette said yes, and the officer found a small amount of marijuana and a methamphetamine pill.

Robinette later tried to have that evidence ruled out, claiming that it was the result of an illegal detention and search.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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