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Supreme Court Justices Support Policemen Who Search Vehicles

By David G. Savage

A police officer who stops a car and has reason to suspect it contains illegal drugs or guns may search everything in the vehicle, including a passenger’s purse, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 6-3 decision continues the trend of giving police greater authority to search motorists and their cars.

For decades, the court has said that once people leave home and go onto the highways, they have a diminished right to privacy. To maintain safety on the roads, police have nearly unchecked power to stop and question motorists, the court has said.

But the scope of police power to search inside a stopped car has been fought out in a series of cases over the past 20 years.

The officer needs something beyond a mere traffic violation to justify a full-fledged search of the car, the court has said.

If, for example, the motorist appears to be drunk or on drugs, or is believed to be carrying a concealed weapon, the officer can search “every part of the vehicle and its contents,” the court has said in the past.

Until Monday, however, it had been unclear whether this power to search extended to the personal belongings of a presumably innocent passenger.

The issue came before the court when state judges in Wyoming threw out the drug evidence found in the purse of a passenger in a car driven by a man who had a syringe sticking out of his front pocket. This search violated the Fourth Amendment, the Wyoming Supreme Court said, because police had no reason to suspect the passenger of wrongdoing.

Reversing that decision, the Supreme Court swept aside the distinction between motorists and their passengers.

“We hold that police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the court.

It would be confusing for the police and for local judges, Scalia said, if a national rule were set that allowed searches of some containers in cars, but not others, depending who claimed them.