High Court Gives Police
Broad New Powers In Car Searches
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided U.S. Supreme Court Monday gave police broad new powers to search a passenger's personal belongings inside a car suspected of containing contraband.
The high court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that officers may inspect a passenger's purse, briefcase or other personal items if they have sufficient grounds to search the car.
Continuing a trend in recent years by the court's conservative majority to expand police powers to search and seize evidence, Justice Antonin Scalia said in the ruling the passenger's constitutional privacy rights were not violated.
In a second criminal law decision, the court ruled that a criminal defendant who has pleaded guilty still retains a constitutional right to remain silent at sentencing.
In the car search case, Scalia said ``passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property that they transport in cars.''
He said the constitutional right against unreasonable searches would not bar the search and a court warrant would not be needed as long as the police had sufficient reason to believe the car contained illegal contraband.
``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.
Applying the ruling to the facts of the case, Scalia said the Wyoming Supreme Court was wrong in overturning a woman's drug conviction because the police unlawfully searched her purse after stopping the car for a traffic violation.
A car driven by David Young was stopped for speeding on an interstate highway in Wyoming in the early morning hours in July 1995. After a police officer saw a hypodermic syringe in Young's pocket, Young said he had used it to take drugs.
Two other officers asked the car's two female passengers to get out. One of them, Sandra Houghton, left her cloth purse on the car's back seat. Inside the bag, police found drug paraphernalia and liquid methamphetamine.
Houghton was convicted on a felony drug charge. The state Supreme Court threw out her conviction, ruling that the police could search the car for drugs Young may have had with him, but should not have searched Houghton's purse.
The ruling was a victory for Wyoming and for the U.S. Justice Department, which argued that any container in an automobile may be assumed to be accessible to all occupants, driver and passengers alike.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissent, saying the state's interest in effective law enforcement does not outweigh the privacy concerns at issue.
In the other ruling, the court said a guilty plea in the federal criminal system does not waive a person's right against self-incrimination at sentencing.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the ruling a sentencing judge may not penalize a person for keeping silent when determining the facts relating to the crime.
The case involved Amanda Mitchell, who pleaded guilty to drug charges but still asserted her constitutional right against self-incrimination at sentencing because her testimony could have subjected her to other federal or state charges.
Mitchell was among 23 defendants indicted for a cocaine distribution conspiracy that operated between 1989 and 1994 in Allentown, Penn. She pleaded guilty to all four counts, but reserved the right to contest the amount of cocaine linked to her in the conspiracy count.
The federal judge presiding over the case told Mitchell that she would give up her constitutional right to remain silent by pleading guilty.
The high court agreed that Mitchell has the right to remain silent at sentencing. But four justices, in a dissent by Scalia, said the judge could take her silence and lack of cooperation into account at sentencing.