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Top court clips police authority to search cars

Supreme Court limits warrantless police searches to instances when an officer or evidence is in danger.

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Ending a decades-long trend favoring law enforcement, the US Supreme Court has moved to restrict the ability of police to conduct open-ended searches of automobiles during traffic stops.

In a 5 to 4 decision announced Tuesday, the nation's highest court ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not permit police to conduct a warrantless search of a car unless the search is immediately necessary to safeguard the arresting officer's safety or to prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence.

The decision means that police cannot rely on a mere traffic violation to authorize a general search for guns, drugs, or other contraband. Such searches created "a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion.

"The character of that threat implicates the central concern underlying the Fourth Amendment – the concern about giving police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person's private effects."

The ruling in Arizona v. Gant narrows a 28-year-old rule that had authorized law enforcement officials to conduct car searches without a warrant during traffic stops. In a subsequent decision, the high court expanded that rule to allow searches without a warrant even after a motorist was being held securely in police custody.

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