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Supreme Court Limits Warrantless Vehicle Searches

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In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that police must obtain a search warrant to search a vehicle of an arrestee if the suspect is secured in a patrol car and poses no threat to officers, the Associated Press reported April 21.

Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion that warrantless searches still may be conducted if a car’s passenger compartment is within reach of a suspect who has been removed from the vehicle, or there is reason to believe evidence will be found of the crime that led to the arrest. “When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant,” Stevens said.

Experts said the ruling would allow police to search without a warrant for drugs and paraphernalia when an arrest is made for a suspected drug infraction, for example, but perhaps disallow warrantless searches for drugs when an arrest is made for an unrelated traffic infraction.

Dissenting Justice Samuel Alito said that the decision upsets police practices that have been in use for the 28 years since the court first authorized warrantless searches of automobiles immediately following an arrest. “What this [new] rule permits in a variety of situations is entirely unclear,” Alito said.

The court’s decision is “not the kind of clear-cut guidance that police officers, lawyers and judges need,” said Devallis Rutledge, special counsel to the Los Angeles County district attorney. Rutledge said that police were “doing the safe thing” by searching vehicles after securing suspects. “That’s been the way they’ve been taught and the way they’ve been trained,” he said.

In a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said he would allow warrantless searches only to look for “evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred.” Scalia said he joined the majority opinion because he considered Alito’s desire to maintain current police practice “the greater evil.” 

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