Supreme Court Says No
Police Warrant Needed For
Car Search And Seizure
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that police do not need a search warrant before seizing a vehicle from a public place if they have grounds to believe it is contraband covered by state forfeiture law.
The high court, by a 7-2 vote, said the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures does not require a warrant if police have sufficient reason to believe the vehicle itself is contraband under Florida law.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the seven-page opinion that the Supreme Court has consistently given police officers greater latitude in exercising their duties in public places.
The conservative-controlled high court in recent years has generally sided with the police in giving them greater powers to seize and search for evidence of possible wrongdoing, curtailing the rights of criminal suspects.
The ruling was a victory for the state of Florida and for the Clinton administration, which said the seizure of property was allowed without a warrant as long as it involved no intrusion on privacy rights.
The justices said the Florida Supreme Court was wrong in throwing out Tyvessel White's drug conviction, based on two pieces of crack cocaine the police found in the ashtray of his seized car.
White was arrested in 1993 at his workplace on charges of selling a controlled substance. After he was taken into custody and the police obtained the keys to his car, the arresting officers seized his automobile from the parking lot.
The basis for the seizure was the belief by the police, based on eyewitnesses and videotapes, that the car had been used in the delivery and sale of cocaine on three occasions. The car was taken under state forfeiture law.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Stevens said Florida failed to offer any reason for the failure to obtain a warrant before or after White's arrest.
"On this record, one must assume that the officers who seized White's car simply preferred to avoid the hassle of seeking approval from a judicial officer,'' Stevens said.
"I would not permit bare inconvenience to overcome our established preference for the warrant process as a check against arbitrary intrusions by law enforcement agencies,'' he said.