How much privacy should Americans expect while driving? “When you are in a car, you are fair game,” says law Prof. Tracey Maclin of Boston University. The limited privacy protections that do exist for cars may shrink as a result of a case being argued today at the U.S. Supreme Court, says the Christian Science Monitor. At issue in Thornton v. U.S. is whether police may search a passenger compartment without a warrant even if they arrest the driver or a recent occupant outside the car.
Permitting the practice would expand a rule from a 1981 high court case, New York v. Belton. That ruling allowed police to search a car’s interior, without first obtaining a warrant, when a suspect is arrested inside the car. The Bush administration and 21 states want the justices to authorize warrantless searches when the arrestee exits a vehicle voluntarily before encountering police.
The issue involves a 2001 incident in which a Norfolk, Va., officer became suspicious of Marcus Thornton after noticing that the license plate on his Lincoln Town Car was registered to a 1982 Chevrolet.
The officer followed Thornton into a shopping-center parking lot. Before the officer could intercept him, Thornton got out of his car. The police officer confronted Thornton in the lot, questioning him about his car registration. He consented to a frisk; the officer discovered marijuana and crack cocaine in his pocket. After arresting Thornton, the officer searched his car and found a loaded pistol. Thornton was convicted of drug dealing and weapons possession charges. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His attorneys challenged use of the gun as evidence, saying police needed a warrant to search the car.