Attorney General Janet Reno, making her first appearance before the Supreme Court, ran into unexpectedly sharp questioning Wednesday in a case testing whether police officers may routinely order passengers out of stopped cars.
Taking the side of Maryland prosecutors, Reno was given 10 minutes to argue as a friend of the court.
Since officers who stop cars along the roadways are “vulnerable to attack” from passengers, Reno said, the police should have the authority to order them out of the car. This rule would protect the lives of the police, while subjecting passengers only to a “brief, temporary” inconvenience, she said.
Not always, commented Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. An officer could order an entire family out of the car to wait while the driver’s traffic records are being checked. “This is a prolonged seizure,” he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia, usually a tough-on-crime jurist, wondered if an officer could order all the passengers of a bus to get out because the driver was speeding.
Reno said that would pose a “more difficult question.”
Scalia responded: “Not for you. You want no reasonableness limitation.”
Most states across the nation, either by law or court opinions, allow officers to order passengers from stopped cars. The rationale is that such stops can be extremely dangerous - between 1985 and 1994, nearly 14 percent of the police officers killed on duty were slain during traffic stops or pursuits, the Justice Department says.
But the high court has never ruled directly on whether officers need a specific reason for ordering an individual passenger from the car, or whether they may do so routinely in all traffic stops and involving all passengers.
Reno’s role in Wednesday’s hearings was largely ceremonial. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran presented his state’s main argument, urging the court to give police the automatic authority in all instances to order passengers out.
A Maryland appeals court had earlier rejected this approach, but both Curran and Clinton administration lawyers adopted it in their briefs for the case, Maryland vs. Wilson, 95-1268.
“This could be carried to extremes,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
What if a police officer told a young mother with a baby to get out of the car in the rain or snow, she asked.
She and other members of the court seemed intent on ruling that officers need at least some reason before they order passengers, who have done nothing wrong, to get out of the vehicle, possibly to be frisked and detained.
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