- 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
- 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.