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Supreme Court ruling narrows police ability to search cars

TAMPA — U.S. Supreme Court justices got a new nickname from Tampa law enforcement officers this week:

"Supreme idiots," someone wrote anonymously in a police chat room Tuesday after word broke that the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to limit the circumstances under which officers can search vehicles.

The response may have been gut-level, but lawyers for local law enforcement agencies spent Wednesday combing the court's ruling to sort out what it means for on-the-street patrol deputies.

For almost three decades, officers have felt free to conduct searches of vehicles after arresting an occupant. Critics have worried the search procedure compromised Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Now, Justice John Paul Stevens' majority opinion limits post-arrest vehicle searches to two circumstances: when the officer has reason to believe the car contains evidence related to the crime the person is being arrested for; and when the person being arrested is within reach of weapons or evidence inside the passenger compartment.

"It definitely changes the landscape," said Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri, who circulated an interoffice memo from the agency's attorney explaining the changes.

Until now, traffic stops have been a leading way for officers to find evidence of other crimes.

For example, someone stopped for rolling through a stop sign might end up getting arrested for driving with a suspended license. But while the person is sitting in the back of a police cruiser, the officer might also search the car and find a bag of cocaine and a stolen gun.

Under the new ruling, such a search would be prohibitive on its own merit, because driving with a suspended license involves no physical evidence that might be hidden in the car.

"The effect is going to be that criminal cases are going to go undetected, particularly drug and gun cases," said William Johnson, executive director and general counsel for the National Association of Police Organizations.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office attorney Mike Perotti said that while the court decision dictates a change in approach, it does nothing to affect inventory searches prior to impounding a vehicle.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Supreme Court ruling narrows police ability to search cars 04/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 23, 2009 10:09pm]
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