Minor traffic stops can be used as justification for detaining motorists and searching their vehicles for drugs, ruled the Supreme Court in an unanimous decision. Critics argue that the ruling will encourage police to use phony pretexts to invade the privacy of motorists — particularly minorities — while proponents maintain that it provides law enforcement with an additional weapon to combat illicit drugs.
“This is an opinion that essentially allows police to do an end run around the Fourth Amendment,” said Steven R. Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union. He warned that the judgment will most likely subject motorists to arbitrary stops.
“The Supreme Court has announced to the world, ‘We don’t care what the method is, so long as the search can be justified in hindsight,'” agreed Natman Schaye, a Tucson Arizona lawyer who filed an amicus brief for the defendants on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“Officers are still bound by the same rules that they were bound by yesterday,” countered Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, who applauded the decision. “I think it’s an affirmation of the manner in which good and innovative police officers are already conducting themselves.”
Writing the opinion for the court, Justice Anton Scalia affirmed that ulterior motives do not strip officers of their justification for a stop as long as a traffic violation has occurred. “For the run of the mine case, … [the Court] think[s] there is no alternative to the traditional common law rule that probable cause justifies a search and seizure. The case is Whren v. United States.