Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. gave a new indication of his views on police powers, saying in an appeals court case that two officers were justified when they searched the trunk of a car they suspected was stolen.
In a dissenting opinion yesterday that showed deference to police officers' needs, as well as a wry sense of humor, Roberts voted to uphold the conviction of Tarry M. Jackson for an illegal gun and ammunition found in the trunk of the car he was driving.
U.S. Park Police officers opened the trunk after learning that temporary license tags on the car were stolen, that Jackson's Virginia driver's license had been suspended and that the car was not registered in Virginia. Roberts was the dissenter in a 2 to 1 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that the search violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment.
"Sometimes a car being driven by an unlicensed driver, with no registration and stolen tags, really does belong to the driver's friend, and sometimes dogs do eat homework," Roberts wrote, "but in neither case is it reasonable to insist on checking out the story before taking other appropriate action."
The majority decision, written by Judge Judith W. Rogers and joined by Judge Harry T. Edwards, faulted Roberts's reasoning, saying he "conveniently ignores" the fact that the officers did not tell Jackson he was suspected of driving a stolen car.
"A prudent, cautious and experienced officer would seek information from the driver precisely because the driver's responses to police inquiries can clarify the situation and may provide probable cause for a further search of the vehicle," Rogers wrote.
Roberts responded by saying that the officers "could reasonably have concluded that further questioning would have yielded nothing more than the usual story any suspect in Jackson's situation would be expected to deliver."
Jackson was stopped at 1 a.m. on May 4, 2002, while driving a 1988 Mercury Marquis without a functioning license-plate light. The opinion did not say where he was stopped.
Jackson indicated his girlfriend had recently bought the car at an auction, the majority said. Rogers said the officers "could have called the purported owner and had her come to the scene with proof."
Roberts scoffed at that suggestion. "This assumes that the officers had nothing better to do while on night patrol than linger roadside, tracking down exculpatory leads for suspects," he wrote.