Search and Seizure Setbacks: High Court Expands Car Search Authority

April 6, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU News Wire: 04-06-99 — Search and Seizure Setbacks: High Court Expands Car Search Authority

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court significantly curtailed the privacy rights of automobile passengers yesterday by ruling 6- 3 that a police officer may search a passenger’s belongings simply because he suspects the driver has done something wrong, the Washington Post reported.

The decision gives police officers broader powers to scour a car for drugs and other contraband and for the first time makes passengers who are not suspected of wrongdoing subject to warrantless searches, the Post said.

“This kind of ruling is yet another example of the so-called war on drug exemption to our constitution’s rule on searches and seizures,” said Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

For decades, the court has allowed officers to extensively inspect a driver’s car and its compartments without a warrant, provided the police have probable cause to believe the driver had committed a crime, the paper said. But until yesterday, the justices had never permitted the search of personal items of a passenger who was suspected of no wrongdoing.

“The ruling runs counter to the reality of the way people run their lives,” Shapiro said. “People should not have to forfeit their privacy merely because they are riding in the car of a person the police might search. By that token, everyone is fair game.”

The decision upholds the felony conviction of Sandra Houghton, who was arrested in 1995 after Wyoming highway patrol officers found liquid methamphetamine in her purse, said Court TV.

The officers had pulled over the driver, David Young, for speeding and driving with a faulty brake light. Court TV reported that the police then proceeded to search passenger Houghton’s purse and found the drugs. She was later convicted of felony drug possession.

However, upon appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court, her conviction was thrown out. The court ruled that police should not be allowed to search property which they know or should know belongs to someone other than the suspect.

Donna Domonkos, a Wyoming attorney who defended Houghton on her appeal, was disappointed with yesterday’s court ruling, saying that “presumes guilt by association.”

Shapiro added that the ruling carries an inherent gender bias because the police can ask to search property but cannot frisk people or ask them to empty their pockets. Therefore women, who are more likely to carry their personal effects such as wallet and I.D. in a purse, are more likely to be affected by the ruling.

Sources: Court TV, April 6, 1999;
The Washington Post, April 6, 1999

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