Court Bars Full Car Search In Traffic Violation Case
By Joan Biskupic
Police may not conduct a full-blown search of motorists and their vehicles after pulling them over and ticketing them for speeding or other minor traffic violations, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.
In an opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the justices overturned a lower court ruling that would have extended the long-standing authority that police have had to search through cars when a motorist is arrested to include nonarrest situations involving only traffic citations.
The decision was a rare victory for a defendant claiming police had illegally rummaged through his car. In recent decades, the justices have narrowly interpreted the breadth of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, particularly in regard to motorists, to give police broad authority to look through vehicles without first obtaining a warrant.
But the fact that yesterday's ruling was unanimous shows how far the police practice at issue in the case went.
The state of Iowa permitted police to conduct a full search after writing up a traffic citation. A handful of other states had begun the practice but the policy in most states has been to allow such searches only when the driver has been arrested and in custody.
The case, which was closely followed by police organizations and civil libertarians, began when a police officer in a town near Des Moines stopped Patrick Knowles for driving 43 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone. The officer issued a citation and then did a full search of Knowles's car, finding some marijuana and a "pot pipe." Knowles was later charged with marijuana possession.
Knowles tried to keep the evidence out of trial, contending that the officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that police can extensively search when a driver is arrested, but Knowles maintained that because he was not actually arrested, there was no reason for a full-blown search. The police officer had conceded that he was not suspicious that Knowles was involved in any criminal activity, which might have given him grounds for the search.
Lower courts ruled against Knowles, reasoning that because Iowa law allowed police to arrest someone for speeding, rather than simply ticketing him, police were allowed an extensive search.
But in reversing that ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court pointed to the distinct rationales for permitting a warrantless search when a motorist is arrested: the need to disarm the suspect so he can be taken into custody and the need to preserve evidence for a trial.
Rehnquist said neither of these rationales could justify the search in Knowles's case: "While the concern for officer safety in [a traffic stop] may justify the `minimal' additional intrusion of ordering a driver and passengers out of the car, it does not by itself justify the often considerably greater intrusion attending a full field-type search."
The chief justice added that a routine speeding violation is unlikely to create the need for preserving evidence.
"Once Knowles was stopped for speeding and issued a citation, all the evidence necessary to prosecute that offense had been obtained," Rehnquist wrote in Knowles v. Iowa. "No further evidence of excessive speed was going to be found."
© 1998 The Washington Post Company