Passengers' personal belongings are fair game when police officers search a car for criminal evidence against the driver, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 6-3 decision reinstated a Wyoming drug conviction and expanded the already considerable police power to stop and search vehicles without a warrant. Police officials praised the ruling, but defense lawyers condemned it.
"Officers must be free of unreasonable, confusing and unworkable restrictions on what may be searched," said Robert Scully of the National Association of Police Organizations. He thanked the court for "giving officers the tools they need to do their jobs."
But Lisa Kemler of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called the decision "an abomination."
Andrew Fine of the Legal Aid Society in New York said the ruling wrongly "introduces an element of guilt by association."
The Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure by police, generally requires officers to obtain warrants. Since 1925, the Supreme Court has carved out numerous exceptions when police targets are in vehicles.
In a key 1996 ruling, the justices said police could stop motorists for routine traffic violations such as a faulty brake light even if the officers really want to search for illegal drugs. Monday's ruling means officers who participate in such stops can search anything in the car if something gives them reason to believe they will find drugs.
The court's ruling stemmed from a routine traffic stop, a situation that arises countless times daily across the nation.
A car driven by David Young was stopped for speeding Natrona County, Wyo., in the early morning hours of July 23, 1995. After a Highway Patrol officer saw a hypodermic syringe in Young's pocket, Young acknowledged that he had used it to take drugs.
During the ensuing search, two other officers asked the car's two female passengers to get out of the car. One of them, Sandra Houghton, left her purse on the car's back seat. Inside it, police found drug paraphernalia and liquid methamphetamine.
She was convicted on a felony charge, but appealed.
The Wyoming Supreme Court threw out her conviction last year, ruling that police were justified in searching the car only for drugs Young may have had with him and therefore could not search Houghton's purse.
Writing for the nation's highest court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Wyoming court was wrong. "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," he said.
He added that 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."
The decision, howver, did not give police the authority to pat down or search the pockets of a passenger when looking for evidence linked to the driver.
Joining Scalia in reinstating Houghton's conviction were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the court had created "a new rule" that would let police search even a taxi passenger's briefcase if they had reason to believe the driver had a syringe somewhere in his vehicle.
Joining him in dissent were Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
By Richard Carelli