No privacy for passengers

Supreme Court: Police can search passengers' belongings even though they are not suspected of any crimes.

April 07, 1999

A CAR is no longer a place where motorists and their passengers can enjoy much Fourth Amendment protection. In a ruling this week, the Supreme Court said police officers searching a vehicle for drugs or other contraband have the right to examine all belongings in the car even though their owner may not be suspected of committing a crime.

Over the past several decades, the Supreme Court has allowed officers to scour vehicles inside and out without a warrant as long as the police have probable cause to believe the driver committed a crime. Until this ruling, passengers' belongings were not subject to search just because the police had cause to search the driver.

The case involved a Wyoming State Police search of a driver who had a syringe in his pocket and admitted using drugs. In searching the car for contraband, the trooper came across a purse on the back seat. The trooper didn't have sufficient cause to search the passenger. Nevertheless, he searched the purse and found methamphetamines. The owner was convicted of possession. She appealed, arguing that the search violated her Fourth Amendment rights.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, argued that passengers have "a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to property" when they travel in cars on public roads. He also argued that the societal interests in allowing law enforcement officers to completely search a car outweighed the privacy interests of the passengers.

Justice David H. Souter, in his dissent, raises an important point that this ruling erases the distinction between driver and passenger. Under this ruling, passengers forfeit rights as long as police have probable cause to search a driver and his or her car.

Police now have a powerful tool. It must not be abused.

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