By a narrow 5-4 decision, the Washington state Supreme Court has ruled that the state's constitution protects drivers against stops made on the pretext of minor traffic violations, when suspected criminal activity was the real motive for the stop. In the majority decision, Justice Richard Sanders wrote that "The ultimate teaching of our case law is that the police may not abuse their authority to conduct a warrantless search or seizure."
The case stems from a 1995 traffic stop in Thurston County of a car with expired plates by police who suspected the driver of drug dealing. The driver's passenger, Thomas Ladson, was searched and arrested on marijuana possession and illegal firearms charges. But Ladson filed a motion to have the evidence against him suppressed, because it had been found on a pretextual stop. The County Superior Court agreed, and the state Supreme Court's ruling upheld that decision.
Pretextual traffic stops that lead to searches and seizures are a common and generally accepted police practice, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld their legality in numerous decisions. But the Washington court said that the state's constitution affords its citizens greater protection.
For the dissent, Justice Barbara Madsen wrote that "the motive of a law-enforcement officer is irrelevant when assessing constitutionality of a stop for a minor traffic infraction."
And in Connecticut this week, Governor John G. Rowland signed a bill into law intended to prevent police from targeting Black and Latino motorists for traffic stops and searches. The law will require police to keep records of the race, gender, age, and ethnicity of each driver they stop, and establish a process by which drivers who feel they have been subject to racial profiling may seek redress. Police departments caught engaging in the practice may have their funding cut by the state. The law goes into effect on October 1.
Connecticut legislation can be read and monitored online at http://www.cga.state.ct.us.