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Court clarifies rules on car searches

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Police can search a parked car for drugs, guns or other evidence of a crime while arresting a driver or passengers nearby, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The high court has already ruled that officers can search a car when arresting someone inside, and the same rule now applies if a motorist or passenger gets out of the car.

The 7-2 ruling addressed a common situation, in which police pull over a suspicious car or come upon it while it is parked. Sometimes motorists get out of the car before an officer approaches, and it was not clear until now whether police had leeway to search the car.

“In all relevant aspects, the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer safety and the destruction of evidence as the arrest of one who is inside the vehicle,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote.

Once told he is under arrest, a suspect outside a car could still lunge inside for a weapon, Rehnquist wrote.

“It would make little sense to apply two different rules to what is, at bottom, the same situation,” Rehnquist wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the outcome.

The ruling would apply only when a suspect was arrested close to a car, and would not apply to an abandoned car with no driver or recent occupant in sight.

Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter dissented.

The new rule invites too many problems, Stevens wrote. “We are not told how recent is recent, or how close is close,” he wrote.

The case involved the 2001 search of a Virginia man’s gold Lincoln Town Car. He had been driving in Norfolk, Va., when an officer noticed his flashy car and ordered a computer check that found the tag was issued for a 1982 Chevrolet. Before the officer could stop Marcus Thornton to give him a ticket, Thornton pulled into a shopping center parking lot and got out.

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