No hiding behind tinted glass Court ruling: Police had power to search truck during traffic stop.

April 13, 1997

SOME PEOPLE USE dark sunglasses to avoid recognition. Some motorists use tinted windshields -- or dark covers over their license plates -- for the same reason.

In a decision expanding police search powers, a federal appeals court ruled last week that government's interest in officer safety gave police the right to open the door of an automobile with tinted windows and search the passenger compartment during a traffic stop.

The driver, Billy Howard Stanfield, had argued the bag of cocaine Baltimore City police found in the back of his sport utility vehicle should not have been used as evidence against him because officers had no probable cause for a search. The federal court rejected Stanfield's argument and said the police intrusion into his illegally parked truck was justified as a "protective search."

"Indeed, it seems to us that a contrary holding would not only be irreconcilable with, but arguably undermine altogether, the case law from the Supreme Court that was developed for the purpose of protecting officers during what are, in today's society, frighteningly perilous encounters," Judge J. Michael Luttig wrote.

He added: "We can conceive of almost nothing more dangerous to a law enforcement officer in the context of a traffic stop than approaching an automobile whose passenger compartment is entirely hidden from the officer's view with darkly tinted windows."

The ruling is notable because police never charged Stanfield with having an illegal amount of tint on his truck windows.

The appellate decision continues a legal and legislative trend that in some cases recently has valued collective rights over individual privacy. Another example of this trend was the bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly that affirmed Howard County's right to place cameras at busy intersections and ticket motorists caught on film running red lights.

These kinds of measures worry civil libertarians. But as law-breaking becomes widespread, society has a right to defend itself.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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