Newsbrief: Supreme Court Expands Police Search Powers Again -- Cops Can Now Search Parked Cars Incident to Arrest 5/28/04

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items

more...

recent blog posts "In the Trenches" activist feed

SUBSCRIBE TODAY!!!

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.

-- END --
Link to Drug War Facts
Please make a generous donation to support Drug War Chronicle in 2007!          

PERMISSION to reprint or redistribute any or all of the contents of Drug War Chronicle (formerly The Week Online with DRCNet is hereby granted. We ask that any use of these materials include proper credit and, where appropriate, a link to one or more of our web sites. If your publication customarily pays for publication, DRCNet requests checks payable to the organization. If your publication does not pay for materials, you are free to use the materials gratis. In all cases, we request notification for our records, including physical copies where material has appeared in print. Contact: StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network, P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 293-8340 (voice), (202) 293-8344 (fax), e-mail [email protected]. Thank you.

Articles of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of the DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

Issue #339, 5/28/04 Editorial: Judge the System | California Senate Votes to Bar Random Drug Tests in Schools | DRCNet Interview: Frank Fisher, MD | Medical Marijuana Minds Gather in Charlottesville | Federal Appeals Court Upholds Oregon Assisted Suicide Law -- DEA Threats to Prosecute Hindered Pain Control | Newsbrief: Camden Opens Second Front in New Jersey Needle Exchange Rebellion | Newsbrief: Needle Exchange Comes to Paraguay | Newsbrief: Ohio Man Deported for Minor Marijuana Conviction Found Murdered in Brazil | Newsbrief: Life for Meth | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Kentucky Prosecutor Offers to Drop Charges in Return for Sex -- X-Rated Romp Caught on Video | Newsbrief: Supreme Court Expands Police Search Powers Again -- Cops Can Now Search Parked Cars Incident to Arrest | This Week in History | Media Scan -- Too Many to List in the Headline This Time! | 3rd Annual Drug War Vigil Film Festival and Contest | Job Opportunities at MPP | Job Opportunity: Campaign Coordinator for Marijuana Policy Reform, ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project | The Reformer's Calendar
Mail this article to a friend
Send us feedback on this article
This issue -- main page
This issue -- single-file printer version
Drug War Chronicle -- main page
Chronicle archives
Subscribe now!
Out from the Shadows HEA Drug Provision Drug War Chronicle Perry Fund DRCNet en EspaŮol Speakeasy Blogs About Us Home
Why Legalization? NJ Racial Profiling Archive Subscribe Donate DRCNet em PortuguÍs Latest News Drug Library Search
special friends links: SSDP - Flex Your Rights - IAL - Drug War Facts

StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet)
1623 Connecticut Ave., NW, 3rd Floor, Washington DC 20009 Phone (202) 293-8340 Fax (202) 293-8344 [email protected]