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Court strengthens the hand of police in searching cars

In a rebuke to privacy rights, justices rule a warrant isn't always needed to enter vehicle.

The US Supreme Court has handed an important victory to law-enforcement officials, ruling that police don't need a warrant to search a car when the person they've arrested was recently in the car.

The 7-to-2 decision, announced Monday, is a setback to civil libertarians who see it as further erosion of Fourth Amendment privacy rights whenever Americans take to the nation's roads and highways.

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The opinion expands a bright-line constitutional rule governing when police are allowed to conduct a warrantless search of a motor vehicle after arresting the driver. The high court said that such warrantless searches are justified whenever the arrestee was a recent occupant and still in the vicinity of the car.

"Once an officer determines that there is probable cause to make an arrest, it is reasonable to allow officers to ensure their safety and to preserve evidence by searching the entire passenger compartment," writes Chief Justice William Rehnquist for the majority.

Tracey Maclin, a law professor and Fourth Amendment expert at Boston University School of Law, says rather than clarifying the issue, the court has left considerable ambiguity about its test. "This is consistent with the court's general approach to the Fourth Amendment. They ask if what the cop did was reasonable. If so, that's enough," says Professor Maclin, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In reaching the decision, the majority justices declined an invitation to endorse a much narrower rule that would have allowed police to conduct warrantless searches of motor vehicles only when an arrestee had been an actual occupant of the car at the time police initiated contact with the suspect.

In rejecting the "contact initiation" test, the justices said it would have made it more difficult and dangerous for police officers to conduct traffic stops. "Rather than clarifying the constitutional limits of a ... search, petitioner's 'contact initiation' rule would obfuscate them," Chief Justice Rehnquist writes.

Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter joined in a dissent, saying that rather than clarifying the Fourth Amendment exception at issue, the majority's expansion of the rule only blurs what had been clear lines.

"We are told that officers may search a vehicle incident to arrest so long as the arrestee is the sort of 'recent occupant' of a vehicle such as petitioner was here," Justice Stevens writes. "But we are not told how recent is recent, or how close is close."

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The decision comes in the case of Marcus Thornton, who was arrested in July 2001 in the parking lot of a Norfolk, Va., shopping center. A police officer became suspicious of Mr. Thornton when he noticed that the license plate on his Lincoln Town Car had been issued to a 1982 Chevrolet. But before the officer could pull Thornton over, he had driven into a parking lot and exited his car.

The officer confronted Thornton on foot. After some questioning, Thornton consented to a pat-down search. The officer discovered narcotics and placed Thornton under arrest. He then searched Thornton's car and discovered a handgun under the driver's seat.

At trial, Thornton was convicted of a drug charge and two weapons possession charges. On appeal, his lawyer challenged the weapons charges, arguing that the police officer had no authority to enter and search the car without first obtaining a search warrant.

The police argued that Thornton was a recent occupant of the car, and Thornton's case fell within the bright-line rule established by the Supreme Court permitting warrantless searches of cars whenever the driver is placed under arrest. A federal judge and federal appeals court panel agreed and upheld the weapons charge convictions.

In upholding the convictions, the majority said the generalizations used to justify the court's bright-line test are necessary to establish a clear rule that can be readily understood and applied by police officers.

Noel C. Paul contributed to this report.