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U.S. Supreme Court reins in police searches of automobiles

POSTED: April 23, 2009 11:05 p.m.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision this week will affect law enforcement procedures across the nation after the court strongly limited what had been a commonplace practice of police officers searching cars after arrests in traffic stops.

Opinions vary as to how much of an impact the high court’s decision in an Arizona case will have.

Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic said the standard procedure of searching cars after arrests was based on the Supreme Court’s 1981 ruling in New York v. Belton.

"For the last 28 years, we’ve operated under the Belton decision, so naturally this will have some pretty broad implications for us," Cronic said. "The major task will be re-educating everyone from the academy level up."

This week’s court decision involved a man who was arrested on a charge of driving with a suspended license. A search of his car after the arrest turned up cocaine.

The justices, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that since there was no threat of officer safety or reason to believe a search of the car would uncover evidence of the crime the man was arrested for, a warrantless search was not permitted under the constitution.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said the decision will require his office to conduct some training of local law enforcement officers.

Darragh said, however, "there are still many circumstances where a search incident to a lawful arrest may be justified."

Darragh believes an officer could still search an arrested person’s car if the officer had reason to believe it contained evidence of the offense that led to the arrest, such as drugs or weapons. Officers outnumbered by others at the scene of the arrest could search a car to "secure the scene" if they believed that weapons inside the car might still pose a danger, Darragh said.

"They’re going to have to look at it very much in a case-by-case basis," Darragh said. "Now police have to evaluate the situation in more detail rather than assuming the right to search just because a person has been arrested."

Police still may conduct warrantless searches of cars prior to arrests if they see a weapon or illegal item in plain view, or if they ask for permission from the car’s occupant to search and are given consent.

Stephanie Woodard, Hall County State Court solicitor-general, said "a lot of average citizens don’t know they have the right to refuse (a search). Law enforcement is supposed to have a reason they can articulate to go into your space."

Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a professor of law at the University of Georgia, said the decision was surprising in that it reversed a 30-year trend of the Supreme Court expanding the search and seizure powers of police in traffic stops. Wilkes also was surprised that two of the court’s more conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, voted in the majority.

Wilkes said the decision no longer allows blanket searches of the cars of anyone placed under arrest. Now officers must provide a reasonable suspicion or probable cause to justify a warrantless search in court.

Wilkes, a critic at times of law enforcement practices, was skeptical that the decision will have much street-level impact.

"It’s a major decision, but in terms of affecting the actual behavior of police, it’s probably not going to be that important, because police are undoubtedly going to say they had probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe something was in the car," Wilkes said.

Darragh said he doesn’t expect the Supreme Court’s decision will have "a devastating impact" on pending or future cases prosecuted by his office.

Woodard said she is unsure whether any cases pending in her office may be affected by the decision, "but I’m sure all of the very good members of our defense bar will bring any to my attention quickly."

Woodard said ultimately it will be up to local judges to interpret the high court’s decision.

"It’s going to be case-by-case, let’s argue the case (in court) and see. It’s going to be interesting to see what the parameters are."


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