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Limits set on searches of vehicles

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press / April 22, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety threat to officers.

The court's 5-4 decision in a case from Arizona puts new limits on the ability of police to search a vehicle immediately after the arrest of a suspect, particularly when the alleged offense is just a traffic violation.

Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion that warrantless searches still may be conducted if a car's passenger compartment is within reach of a suspect who has been removed from the vehicle or there is reason to believe evidence will be found of the crime that led to the arrest.

"When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant," Stevens said.

Justice Samuel Alito, in dissent, complained that the decision upsets police practice that has developed since the court, 28 years ago, first authorized warrantless searches of cars immediately following an arrest.

"There are cases in which it is unclear whether an arrestee could retrieve a weapon or evidence," Alito said. Even more confusing, he said, is asking police to determine whether the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.

Stevens conceded that police academies teach the more permissive practice and that law enforcement officers have relied on it. Yet, he said, "Countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious than a traffic violation have had their constitutional right to the security of their private effects violated as a result."

Fordham University law professor Dan Capra said the ruling "will have a major impact when the driver is arrested for a traffic offense." When police have probable cause to arrest someone for drug crimes, Capra said, they ordinarily will be able to search a car in pursuit of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Prosecutors and police instructors were generally disappointed with the decision.

Tom Hammarstrom, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, said training for law officers would be adjusted to conform to the high court's ruling.