Police Study Supreme Court's Latest List of "Do's and Don'ts"

July 8, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON, DC — The Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers who pulled over a speeding car had no idea a backseat passenger was carrying drugs in her purse. But according to the Associated Press, they ended up looking inside it anyway, a search now condoned by the nation’s highest court.

That ruling is part of an annual summer ritual in which police departments across America are detailing for officers the Supreme Court’s latest “dos” and “don’ts” of their work — guidelines that become part of the fabric of daily life.

The AP reports that the Wyoming troopers had noticed a hypodermic syringe in the driver’s shirt pocket, and he admitted having used it to take drugs. That sparked a search of the whole car. Ruling in a constitutional challenge to that search earlier this year, the nation’s highest court said the purse search was legal even though police had no reason to suspect the passenger of any crime.

In the court’s recently concluded 1998-99 term, police won some and lost some.

“The court defines the constitutional boundaries that have to be respected whenever the police interact with citizens,” Steven Shapiro, National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union told the AP. “The court’s role is to tell police when they have crossed the line.”

Stephen McSpadden, general counsel of the National Association of Police Organizations, said that efforts are underway to familiarize law enforcement officers with the court’s relevant latest decisions. According to the AP, they included these:

  • If police have reason to believe a car’s driver has committed a crime, may they search the possessions of all passengers in that car? Yes.

  • May police generally search motorists and their cars after ticketing them for routine traffic violations? No.

  • Can police let TV camera crews and other news media accompany them when they enter someone’s home to conduct a search or make an arrest? No.

  • Can police tell people loitering with known street gang members to move on, and arrest them if they refuse? No.

  • May police, acting without court warrants, seize someone’s car from a public place if they believe it was used for a crime? Yes.

“What’s at work here is that a court generally deferential to law enforcement is not about to let states or communities give unbridled discretion to individual officers,” the ACLU’s Shapiro said.

In a highly publicized ruling released near the end of the term, the court struck down Chicago’s “anti-gang loitering” ordinance in a challenge brought by the ACLU of Illinois.

McSpadden told the AP that the law was “clearly overbroad because it swept in innocent individuals who had no connection with gang activity.”

“Our people tell us the ordinance was an effort by Chicago’s officials to pump up the statistics on the city’s anti-gang efforts,” he said.

Shapiro told the newswire that the Chicago ordinance “simply went too far” and let some police officers engage in “racial profiling” – treating someone as a criminal suspect based on nothing more than skin color.

Read the ACLU’s full report on the major civil liberties decisions of the 1998-99 Supreme Court term at /scotus/1999-supreme-court-term or link to our release at /news/1999/n062499a.html.

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