IF YOU HAVE EVER been orderd by a police officer to pull your car over to the side of the road, the odds are your first thought was: What have I done wrong? That's the way it should be; officers should be not stopping you unless they think you have done something wrong. And that's the way it will be in the future. The Supreme Court put an end Tuesday to those "routien" stops the police have sometimes made at random to check for illegal drivers and improper auto registratons.
The decision is not an earthshaker, as court devisions go. But it is important because it represents one of the few times in recent years that a majority of the justices have shown much sympathy for the citizenhs right to privacy. The trend of the court has been toward letting police intrude more and more deeply into realms of life and places you might think should stay free of official scrutiny. Las year, for instance, it ruled that a passenger in a car has no reason to think the inside of that car is a private place although the owner of it does. So it is good to have the justices come down, 8 to 1, the favor of curtailing a police practice that has needlessly given too many people a brief moment of fright or, at least, concern until they learned they were victims of a "routine" check.
The justification for these random checks had been that they are needed to keep unlicensed drivers off the highways. But their impact on safety must be marginal. As Justce Byron R. White wrote, "It must be assumed that finding an unlicensed driver amont those who commit traffic violations is a much more likely event than finding an unlicensed driver by choosing randomly from the entire universe of drivers."
Under the decision, the police are still free to set up a roadblock and stop ever car for a document check or to stop, as they now do, every truck for a safety and weight-limit inspection. The difference, the courts says, is that a driver is likely to be less frightened and less annoyed at the intrusion into his privacy when everyone is required to stop than when just one car is stopped. This distinction is a narrow and sensitive one, a product as much of personal feeling as of logic. It is the kind of distinction that has been missing from too many of the court's other decisions about privacy.