- 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
- 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
- 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
- Concern ruling on belongings may stretch
- 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.
- <http://www.cnn.com/US/9901/12/scotus.car.searches/interactive_legal.html#AP Th e Associated Press contributed to this report.