High Court Weighs Privacy and Rules of the Road

Case on today's docket could affect search-and-seizure laws nationwide.

Americans love their cars. To many drivers they are a second home. But do the rights of privacy Americans are guaranteed in their homes travel with them on the highway?

Whether drivers have a reasonable expectation of privacy when pulled over for minor traffic infractions is the question before the Supreme Court today.

The case represents a fundamental clash of principles - personal rights versus police rights - and is one of the bigger constitutional cases to come before the court this year. The outcome will affect drivers nationwide.

At issue is an Iowa law that authorizes police to physically search any driver and his or her car after issuing a traffic citation.

It doesn't have to be a major offense. Drivers have been pulled over and subjected to a search for unknowingly crossing town with a broken taillight or driving without fastening their seat belt.

The law was set up to protect police during roadside stops by allowing them to pat down drivers to detect any concealed weapons. But in some cases the searches turn up narcotics.

That's what happened to Patrick Knowles. In March 1996, he was pulled over for driving 43 m.p.h. in a 25 m.p.h. zone. After ticketing and frisking Mr. Knowles, the police officer began to search his car. He arrested him after finding a bag of marijuana under the driver's seat. The charge: possession of marijuana. Knowles was later convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

But his lawyers say the conviction should be thrown out because the police officer violated Knowles's privacy rights. They say police have the authority to search for and seize concealed weapons, but they have no authority under the Constitution to engage in a fishing expedition - seizing any and all contraband.

Lawyers for the state of Iowa don't see it that way. They say that if you break the law - any law - you've forfeited your right to privacy. In effect, if a police officer has a valid reason to pull you over and issue a traffic ticket, you can expect to be patted down and have the officer rummage through the passenger area of your car.

"When you have exposed yourself to arrest you have no reasonable expectation of privacy," says Bridget Chambers, the assistant Iowa attorney general arguing the case before the high court.

Until now, the law [outside Iowa] has been that police have the authority to engage in a wide-ranging search of both driver and car only when the officer is in the process of arresting someone. The rationale is that a person about to spend time behind bars has no reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore a search does not offend Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

But what about when the officer is only temporarily detaining someone to issue a citation?

Should a person caught speeding or not wearing a seat belt have a reasonable expectation of not having his car searched?

Civil libertarians warn that if the Supreme Court agrees with Iowa's view, it will mark a substantial setback for the privacy interests of drivers nationwide.

"If they uphold [the Iowa law], it will completely transform Fourth Amendment law as it relates to automobiles," says Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union.

In addition to civil libertarians, police groups are also closely following the case. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) argues in favor of the Iowa law. The concern is that a police officer who stops a driver even for a minor infraction has no idea whether the driver is a generally well-behaved Sunday school teacher or an armed killer.

"Whenever a police officer stops somebody there is always an issue of safety. That issue exists whether it is an arrest or a traffic citation," says Stephen McSpadden, NAPO general counsel.

Fourth Amendment principles necessitate a balancing of citizen privacy rights and the need to protect police officers.

Striking the right balance is the work of the Supreme Court.

"I am not saying officer safety is not an important concern, but the Fourth Amendment says you can't assume that every person walking the street poses a threat to an officer's life," says James Tomkovicz, a law professor at the University of Iowa College of Law in Iowa City who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the ACLU and other civil liberties groups. "The Fourth Amendment says give us a reason before you violate people's rights. A mere traffic stop does not justify a violation of a person's right to privacy."

BEYOND the constitutional issues at stake, some analysts are concerned that granting police broad discretion will result in an inordinate number of young black and Latino men being cited for minor traffic offenses as a pretext to search their cars. Civil libertarians say it would be difficult, if not impossible, for targeted African-Americans and Latinos to prove race played a role in their being stopped and searched.

A decision in Knowles v. Iowa is expected by next summer.

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