Personal Privacy And Police Search Powers Before Supreme Court
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case that will allow the justices to review the scope of police searches after cars are stopped for traffic violations.
Lawyers for the state of Wyoming and the Clinton administration urged the seemingly sympathetic high court to let police sometimes search the personal belongings of all passengers in a stopped car. A rule always denying such authority would be "very difficult for police to apply (and) might be exceedingly unworkable," Justice Department lawyer Barbara McDowell argued.
The case before the court involves a drug conviction stemming from a search of a passenger's purse after a car she was in was stopped for speeding in Wyoming early one morning in 1995.
After a Highway Patrol officer saw a hypodermic syringe in driver David Young's pocket, Young admitted he had used it to take drugs.
During the ensuing search of the car, 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. Police found drug paraphernalia and liquid methamphetamine inside the purse.
Houghton was convicted on a felony drug charge, but she appealed. The Wyoming Supreme Court threw out her conviction last April, ruling that police were justified only in searching the car for drugs Young may have had with him -- and therefore could not legally search Houghton's purse.
On Tuesday, McDowell and Wyoming Deputy Attorney General Paul Rehurek urged the justices to overturn the Wyoming high court decision. They said the police had reason to believe Young had drugs in the car. And the attorneys argued that that suspicion gave police the right to search any container -- including Houghton's purse -- that might hold the illegal drugs.
Previous Supreme Court decisions seem to conflict
The Supreme Court justices must not only consider this case, but how it lines up to two previous high court decisions that seem to contradict each other.
In 1948, the court ruled that police generally may not search passengers in a stopped vehicle unless authorities have some reason to believe the passengers, as opposed to the driver, had broken some law.
In 1982, the justices said once police reasonably believed a vehicle may contain drugs or some other illegal goods, authorities are free to search any container in that vehicle where the contraband might be hidden.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist suggested Tuesday the 1982 decision was aimed at providing police with a "bright line rule" because previous rulings had "hopelessly confused the issue." Rehnquist said he worried the Wyoming court's ruling would return courts to "that case-by-case thing where nobody is going to know what the rule is."
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia also voiced doubts about the state court ruling.
Concern ruling on belongings may stretch to clothing
But Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced concern that the legal rationale to let police search passengers' personal belongings would also allow searches of their clothing as well. "It could be concealed in the pocket as easily as in the purse," Souter said at one point.
Houghton's lawyer, Donna Domonkos, urged the court to adopt a rule that would protect passengers and their personal belongings from being searched unless police have "probable cause" to believe those passengers have committed a crime.
< Th e Associated Press contributed to this report.