The Supreme Court ruled that when police are searching for criminal evidence against a driver, they may also search the personal belongings of passengers. This ruling increased the already considerable power of police to search a driver without a warrant.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizures, generally requires police to obtain search warrants. However, since vehicles are mobile, the Supreme Court has ruled that police may search you and your vehicle if they expect to find evidence of a crime.
The Supreme Court further reduced your rights in 1996 by allowing police to stop motorists for routine traffic violations even if the officers actually want to search for drugs. The court’s recent ruling now gives police the right to also search the belongings of passengers.
However, during a search for evidence linked to a driver, police may still not pat down or search the pockets of passengers. A 1948 Supreme Court ruling banned these tactics.
The recent court ruling focused on a passenger search during a routine traffic stop in Wyoming. On July 23, 1995, a highway patrol officer stopped David Young for speeding and saw a hypodermic syringe in Young’s pocket. Young acknowledged that he used the syringe to take drugs.
At that point, two other officers asked the driver’s two passengers to exit the car. While searching the vehicle, police found drug paraphernalia and liquid methamphetamine in a purse that belonged to one of the passengers. The passenger was convicted on a felony charge but appealed.
However, like the many teenagers across the country who are fighting their curfew convictions, the passenger appealed the decision. The Wyoming Supreme Court threw out her conviction by ruling that police were justified only in searching the car for drugs Young may have had with him — and therefore could not search Houghton’s purse.
The Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the nation, disagreed with the ruling by a vote of 6-3.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the decision, said, “Effective law enforcement would be appreciably impaired without the ability to search a passenger’s personal belongings when there is reason to believe contraband or evidence of criminal wrongdoing is hidden in the car,” Scalia said.
“The sensible rule … is that such a package may be searched, whether or not its owner is present as a passenger or otherwise, because it may contain the contraband that the officer has reason to believe is in the car,” Scalia said.
He added that car passengers “will often be engaged in a common enterprise with the driver and have the same interest in concealing the fruits or the evidence of their wrongdoing.”
This case is yet another example of how the War on Drugs is really a War on Americans. In the endless search for drugs, police may now violate each citizen’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizures.
The best way to fight back against this decision is to support the privatization of roads, which is a fundamental part of Capitalism. Private roads would have private cops who are only concerned with traffic violations and probably do not have the legal right to search vehicles.
Private roads would exist in private neighborhoods that want your business. The CEOs who manage these neighborhoods know that you can always spend your money in another neighborhood. Therefore, they would probably forbid almost all searches to make sure that customers feel secure.
Wouldn’t you prefer to drive in private neighborhoods where people are not subject to the outrageous searches that are now possible on government roads in government neighborhoods?