Court Expands Car Search Authority
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court significantly curtailed the privacy rights of automobile passengers yesterday by ruling 6 to 3 that a police officer may search a passenger's belongings simply because he suspects the driver has done something wrong.
The decision gives police officers broader powers to scour a car for drugs and other contraband and for the first time makes passengers who are not suspected of wrongdoing subject to warrantless searches.
For decades the court has allowed officers to extensively inspect a driver's car and its compartments in myriad situations without a warrant, provided the police have probable cause to believe the driver had committed some crime. But until yesterday, the justices had never permitted the search of personal items of a passenger who was suspected of no wrongdoing.
The court normally requires that, to comply with the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, police must first obtain a warrant before going through people's possessions. Police can act without a warrant if officers have grounds to believe an individual is breaking the law. Now, passengers can expect to have to submit to a search of their belongings by virtue of their mere presence in the car and not because of anything they do.
"Passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property that they transport in cars, which travel public thoroughfares," Justice Antonin Scalia declared in the majority decision upholding a Wyoming state trooper's search of a female passenger's purse after a male driver was stopped and suspected of concealing drugs.
In their dissent, Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that by abandoning "the settled distinction between drivers and passengers," the decision seriously intrudes on privacy rights.
Against the backdrop of the nation's crusade on drugs and debate over how far police go, advocates on both sides were quick to lash out or alternatively laud the decision.
"I don't think the court's opinion corresponds to how people live their lives," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It shouldn't be true that whenever you get into a car as a passenger, you forfeit all your privacy rights" because of suspicion raised by the driver.
Donna Domonkos, appellate counsel in Wyoming's public defender office who represented the woman who was caught with drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine in her purse, complained that the ruling "presumes guilt by association."
But Robert T. Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, praised the decision "for giving officers the tools they need to do their job."
Deputy Wyoming Attorney General Paul S. Rehurek added that it was unreasonable to think police could separate out items in a vehicle by ownership and whether individual passengers were suspected of wrongdoing.
The case began in July 1995 when a Wyoming trooper stopped a car driven by David Young because of a faulty brake light. The officer noticed a hypodermic syringe in Young's shirt pocket, and as Scalia's opinion noted, Young admitted "with refreshing candor . . . that he used it to take drugs."
With that admission, the officer began searching the car for contraband. On the back seat, he found passenger Sandra Houghton's purse. The officer, who said he lacked sufficient grounds to suspect Houghton, nonetheless searched her purse. Houghton was convicted of methamphetamine possession. She then appealed saying that the search violated her Fourth Amendment rights.
Reversing the conviction, the Wyoming Supreme Court observed that "generally, once probable cause is established to search a vehicle, an officer is entitled to search all containers. . . . However, if the officer knows or should know that a container is the personal effect of a passenger who is not suspected of criminal activity, then the container is outside the scope of the search."
But Scalia wrote that the court's past cases giving police broad power to search cars leads to a rule that would allow all containers in a car to be inspected, without regard to whose they are. Scalia stressed the stakes of law enforcement and said a rule protecting passengers' belongings could lead criminals to hide contraband in those items. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.
In the dissent, Stevens wrote that "the court's newly minted test" would allow serious intrusions on privacy. Under the rule of Wyoming v. Houghton, he said, police apparently could search a taxi passenger's briefcase if the officer had reason to believe the driver had hidden a syringe somewhere.
Separately, the court ruled 5 to 4 that defendants who plead guilty do not lose their right to remain silent at a sentencing hearing and that judges should not hold their silence against them. A Pennsylva nia woman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine but then refused to testify about the details of the crime or quantities involved, which affected the severity of her sentence. A district judge said he drew a negative inference from her silence as he sentenced her to 10 years.
But the high court reversed that ruling based on the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. "Treating a guilty plea as a waiver of the privilege at sentencing would be a grave encroachment on the rights of defendants," Kennedy wrote for the court. Dissenting in Mitchell v. United States were Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia and Thomas.
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