Court gives wide power to police in car searches

Checking property of passengers allowed

April 06, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court widened yesterday the power of police to search the belongings of passengers in cars stopped for traffic violations.

If officers have reason to believe that the driver may have drugs or other illegal items in the car, that allows them to search purses or other personal property of all passengers -- even if no passenger is suspected of a crime, the court decided by a 6-3 vote.

Any container in the car that might contain illegal items may be searched, the court said,

That authority, however, does not extend to searching the clothing or the passengers themselves, the court stressed. It said the Constitution draws a distinction between searching persons and property, but not between driver and passengers.

The dissenters complained that the decision expands police search power over passengers, based solely on the driver's actual or suspected misconduct. But the dissenters said that, "thankfully," the ruling only involves searches when an automobile is involved, and not other private property.

The ruling was the latest in a long series of Supreme Court cases testing police authority to search or conduct questioning during legal traffic stops. In most of those cases, the court has tended to favor added police power.

This time, the court overturned a Wyoming Supreme Court decision saying that it is unconstitutional for police to search belongings of passengers in stopped cars, when officers have no suspicions about passengers themselves.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion, said, "Effective law enforcement would be appreciably impaired without the ability to search a passenger's personal belongings when there is reason to believe contraband or evidence of criminal wrongdoing is hidden in the car."

The case involved the police search of a female passenger's purse after the driver -- stopped for speeding and for a burned-out brake light -- was found to have a drug syringe in his pocket. The driver admitted he had used it for drugs. The passenger's purse was in the back seat.

After officers found illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia in her purse, Sandra Houghton was convicted for illegal possession of drugs and sentenced to two to three years in prison.

The National Association of Police Organizations praised the ruling, saying "officers must be free of unreasonable, confusing and unworkable restrictions on what may be searched."

But the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called the decision "an abomination," saying it meant that passengers "basically have no rights. Almost anything goes, as long as police can come up with some reason to say they expected to find evidence of a crime."

Joining Justice Scalia in the decision were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

In a second criminal law decision, the justices ruled, 5-4, that an individual who pleads guilty to a crime still may rely upon the Fifth Amendment to refuse to answer questions at the sentencing hearing to avoid giving facts that could make the sentence more severe.

The judge and jury may not draw any negative conclusions because the Fifth Amendment right to silence is invoked, the court ruled in an opinion by Justice Kennedy in a drug trafficking case from Allentown, Pa.

A woman who pleaded guilty to cocaine dealing refused at the sentencing hearing to say how much cocaine had been involved -- a factor in determining the sentence. The judge said he was holding her silence against her, and gave her a 10-year prison sentence.

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