What Motorists Don’t Know Can Convict Them High Court Says Cops Don’t Have To Tell Drivers They Needn’t Yield To Searches

Millions of American motorists may have lost a constitutional right Monday that they didn’t know they had.

In an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court said drivers who are stopped for traffic violations may be pressured into having their cars searched without being told they have a choice in the matter.

Many officers, particularly those on drug patrols, routinely use traffic stops as a means of looking for drugs and weapons. Technically, the law says drivers can leave once they get a ticket. Most motorists don’t know that - and many officers are glad of it.

“It would be unrealistic to require police officers” to tell motorists they are free to leave and need not submit to a search of their cars, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said without explanation.

His opinion overturns a decision of the Ohio Supreme Court that ordered police to tell motorists of their rights.

The state judges had concluded police were taking advantage of the public’s ignorance and their own authority by turning “routine traffic stops into fishing expeditions.” One officer who patrolled Interstate 70 near Dayton testified he had done 786 searches in one year. Once stopped for speeding, drivers were pressured to allow a search of their car, its glove compartment and their luggage, even when nothing hinted the motorist was carrying drugs or a weapon.

To preserve the 4th Amendment guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Ohio court decreed officers must tell motorists they are free to leave after answering to a traffic violation. Rejecting that idea in a cursory opinion, the Supreme Court said car searches will continue to be deemed “consensual” unless a motorist can prove he objected.

Five years ago, the high court took the same approach in upholding routine searches of passengers traveling on interstate buses. In that case, drug agents in Florida walked down the aisles of buses and asked to search the bags of all the passengers. The court said these were “consensual” searches, even though the passenger who appealed said he did not agree to having his bags searched.

Dissenting from Monday’s ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens said detaining a motorist after a traffic stop should be deemed an “illegal seizure” in violation of the 4th Amendment. “A reasonable person would not feel free to walk away,” he wrote.

Thirty years ago, in the famous Miranda decision, the Supreme Court said persons who are taken into police custody must be warned of their rights before they are questioned. Chief Justice Earl Warren said these warnings were needed because most people did not know they had a constitutional right to not answer questions or to consult with a lawyer.

Practically no one expected the current court to take a similar step to protect individual rights, especially in a case involving drugs. Even the lawyers who defended the Ohio motorist in the latest case said they fully expected to lose.

State prosecutors praised the court for giving the police a freer hand. “We’re thrilled with the decision. It prevents the creating of a new set of ‘Miranda rules’ for the 4th Amendment,” said Ohio state attorney Jeffrey S. Sutton. “That would have seriously handcuffed the police when it comes to ferreting out crime.”

Reacting angrily, Boston University law professor Tracey Maclin accused the justices of simply ignoring the 4th Amendment.

“This guy was seized. It was not a voluntary search,” he said. The decision “means that for millions of people who suffer this kind of intrusion, the Supreme Court is saying we are not going to impose any rules on police who make traffic stops.”


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