In another contraction of Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted searches and seizures, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police can search a parked car for drugs, guns, or other criminal evidence while arresting "recent occupants." The court had previously upheld searches of vehicle interiors incident to the arrest of a driver or passenger, but now extends police search powers to include searches when the arrestee recently left the vehicle.
The case, Thornton v. US, arose when a Norfolk, Virginia, police officer began following Marcus Thornton in traffic. The officer grew suspicious because the license plate registration did not match the vehicle, but Thornton parked his car and left the vehicle before the officer could pull him over. When confronted, Thornton consented to a pat-down search, and the officer found drugs in his pants pocket. After arresting Thornton and placing him in the police car, the officer then searched Thornton's vehicle and found a weapon. Thornton was tried and convicted on federal drug and gun charges.
Thornton appealed, arguing that the reasons the court has allowed police officers to make vehicle searches incident to arrest -- for the safety of the officer and to prevent the destruction of evidence -- did not apply because Thornton was already safely in custody.
But the Supreme Court wasn't buying that argument. In a 7-2 decision, the court held that "recent" occupants of a vehicle were essentially the same as current occupants of a vehicle. "In all relevant aspects, the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer safety and the destruction of evidence as the arrest of one who is inside the vehicle," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority. An arrested suspect could still lunge inside the vehicle for a weapon, he wrote (although without explaining how a handcuffed arrestee in the back seat of a locked police car might pull that off). "It would make little sense to apply two different rules to what is, at bottom, the same situation," Rehnquist wrote.
In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the court's only real justification for allowing searches of parked vehicles incident to the arrest of "recent occupants" was to enable officers to search for evidence of crimes. "In my opinion, that goal must give way to the citizen's constitutionally-protected interest in privacy when there is already in place a well-defined rule limiting the permissible scope of a search of an arrested pedestrian," wrote Stevens. "The [Supreme Court] should provide the same protection to the 'recent occupant' of an automobile as it does to the recent occupant of a house."
Writing for the majority, Rehnquist argued that the court needed to set a clear rule for police, but Stevens wrote that the Monday decision did nothing of the kind. Instead, Stevens predicted continuing litigation over what is a "recent occupant," and warned that the decision further eroded the Fourth Amendment. "I fear that today's decision will contribute to the massive broadening of 'the automobile exception,' where officers have the probable cause to arrest the person but not to search his car."
Read the decision in Thornton v. United States online at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/03pdf/03-5165.pdf.