A Supreme Court decision earlier this week that gives polices the right to order drivers from their cars during routine traffic stops appears unlikely to have any influence on Washington area police practice.
Most area police officials say they encourage officers to handle such situations on a "case-by-case" basis, ordering drivers or passengers out of cars only when officers have reason to fear for their safety.
In contrast, the Philadelphia Police officer involved in Monday's Supreme Court decision said it was his practice "to order all drivers out of their vehicles as a matter of course whenever thay had been stopped for a traffic violation."
"I don't agree with that personally," said Cpl. John Hoback, an instructor at the Northern Virginia Police Academy. "We don't teach that," he said, expressing concern that "impressionable young recruits" might go over-board and "we'll be deluged with complaints from citizens with expired tags who have been subjected to police searches."
Daniel Cassidy, legal adviser to the Montgomery County police, agreed that officers should not normally order drivers or passengers from their cars, or conduct frisks, in cases in which only a minor traffic offense is involved. "It depends on just what kind of information the officer has," said Cassidy.
In the District according to assistant police general cousel Richard Brooks, "As a normal policy, it's not done." But if it were dark and there were as many as four passengers in the car, an officer might have good cause to ask them to step outside, he said. "It may be word of understanding more than a written order," said Brooks.
Although most area jurisdictions have written orders or training bulletins on how to conduct a traffic stop, decisions are "pretty much left up to the individual officer," Holback said.
The Supreme Court ruling upheld the conviction on gun charges of a Philadelphia man whose car had been stopped because it bore an expired license plate. The police officer ordered the man from his car, saw a buldge in his pocket, conducted a frisk, and confiscated a loaded 38-caliber revolver.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned the conviction, holding that the gun "was seized in a manner which violated the Fourth Amendment . . ." But a six-member majority of the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed decribing the policeman's order as a "pretty indignity" when weighed against the safety of the officer.