Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Rule on Warrantless Searches of Vehicles after an arrest

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 28-year old rule that broadly permitted warrantless searches of vehicles when the occupant was arrested. The rationale for the rule was that the vehicle occupant could grab a weapon and endanger the arresting officer. But the court realized that the rationale did not justify the search without a warrant when the suspect was handcuffed and secured in the back of a patrol car.

This important decision narrows the circumstances of warrantless searches of vehicles. Not only is this case remarkable as one that extends the protections of the Fourth Amendment, but the five justice majority spans the spectrum: Stevens wrote the opinion and was joined by Scalia, Thomas, Souter and Ginsburg.

The dissent by Alito does not defend the rationale for the warrantless search. He takes different tack -- the doctrine of stare decisis. Since the rule is old, it should only be changed based on strong arguments, and he provides a number of administrative objections -- but no real analysis of the meaning of the Constitution and the provision that warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable unless justified by an exception. Alito is joined by CJ Roberts, Kennedy and Breyer.

This opinion does not protect persons against searches of their vehicles in which evidence is in plain view, such as a drug paraphernalia, a "roach" in the car ashtray, or the smell of marijuana smoke in the vehicle. Nor does it protect against searches for which a warrant is obtained based upon probable cause.

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