The U.S. Supreme Court said yesterday that police don’t need a warrant to search a car when the person they’ve arrested was recently in the car, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The 7-to-2 ruling was a setback to civil libertarians. “Once an officer determines that there is probable cause to make an arrest, it is reasonable to allow officers to ensure their safety and to preserve evidence by searching the entire passenger compartment,” wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
“This is consistent with the court’s general approach to the Fourth Amendment. They ask if what the cop did was reasonable. If so, that’s enough,” says law Prof. Tracey Maclin of Boston University, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The court majority declined to endorse a much narrower rule that would have allowed police to conduct warrantless searches of motor vehicles only when an arrestee had been an actual occupant of the car at the time police initiated contact with the suspect.
Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter dissented, saying that rather than clarifying the Fourth Amendment exception at issue, the majority’s expansion of the rule only blurs what had been clear lines. The case involved Marcus Thornton, who was arrested in July 2001 in the parking lot of a Norfolk, Va., shopping center. A police officer became suspicious of Thornton when he noticed that the license plate on his Lincoln Town Car had been issued to a 1982 Chevrolet. Before the officer could pull Thornton over, he had driven into a parking lot and left his car.