Court Reviews Iowa's Vehicle Search Statute
By Joan Biskupic
On a rainy Election Day, with most of the town's attention turned elsewhere, the Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in an important constitutional dispute over whether police can do a full-blown search of a motorist and his vehicle even if he was only issued a traffic citation.
The court generally has allowed such searches only when the driver has been actually arrested. But a few states have begun permitting police to conduct a full search after merely writing up a traffic citation.
This "would be a frightening expansion of police power," Des Moines lawyer Paul Rosenberg told the court in his written appeal. And during yesterday's oral arguments in the Iowa case, Rosenberg added that because police write more than 400,000 traffic citations in the state annually, they have enormous potential to intrude on personal privacy, as well as to target particular people.
Some of the justices voiced concerns about whether someone who has been ticketed for speeding, rolling through a stop sign or forgetting to signal a turn should be subject to searches. Justice John Paul Stevens said if the Supreme Court upholds the Iowa law, which now has variations in only a few states, others are likely to soon follow.
Yesterday's case stems from an incident involving Patrick Knowles, a motorist who was pulled over for speeding, given a citation, then searched. The police officer, who said later that he was not suspicious that Knowles was involved in any criminal activity, found some marijuana and a pipe in his car. Knowles was then charged with marijuana possession.
Knowles sought to have the evidence kept out of trial, saying the confiscation violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. But his motion was unsuccessful and Knowles was convicted. He lost an appeal before the Iowa Supreme Court.
Yesterday, Knowles's lawyer emphasized that courts historically have allowed a search of a driver and his car only if police had had reason to arrest him and take him to jail. That was based on the idea that an officer needs to disarm a suspect, remove any weapons from the car and preserve evidence for a later trial. This kind of search, known as a "search incident to an arrest," is an exception to the general rule that police may conduct a car search only if they have "probable cause" to believe that criminal wrongdoing has occurred.
"What is it about an arrest that justifies the search?" Justice David H. Souter asked Rosenberg, trying to draw a line between the circumstances surrounding an arrest and a citation for a traffic offense.
If an officer found it necessary to arrest a suspect, which involves handcuffing him and taking him into custody, Rosenberg said, there likely would be a need to prevent escape and danger to the officer.
Souter said he was concerned about allowing any more exceptions to constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist observed that the need to safeguard evidence, which typically arises in the context of an arrest, is not present in the typical traffic stop. When someone who has been speeding is pulled over, the wrongdoing necessarily ends when the car stops, Rehnquist said.
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Bridget A. Chambers defended the state's policy by saying that when police give a traffic citation, they have simply chosen not to arrest the motorist as they are allowed under state law. So, she said, the state's citation-related searches are as constitutionally valid as searches permitted after someone is taken into custody.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that a person who gets a traffic ticket would hardly be prepared for full-blown scrutiny. "It does seem an enormous amount of authority to put into the hands of the police," Ginsburg said.
The National Association of Police Organizations has sided with Iowa, noting that it is "not uncommon for routine traffic stops to escalate into a violent situation." But the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in Knowles v. Iowa on the other side, noting that Iowa's law "would deprive countless innocent citizens of constitutionally protected interest in privacy, dignity, and liberty."
© 1998 The Washington Post Company