Court Rules Traffic Stops Netting Drug Arrests Constitutional

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court removed handcuffs yesterday from narcotics detectives seeking evidence, ruling unanimously that motives don't matter when stopping a suspect for a traffic violation.

In a decision that defense lawyers call a "license" for the police to hunt, the court ruled that cocaine and PCP found by D.C. vice officers during a traffic stop in Southeast were admissible as evidence.

The opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said "ulterior motives" don't invalidate the officers' actions.

Defense lawyers argued that the plainclothes detectives violated department rules restricting traffic enforcement to uniformed officers except for a violation "so grave as to pose an immediate threat to the safety of others."

Many police departments have similar written policies and 14 states have laws that make the same restrictions.

"The making of a traffic stop out-of-uniform does not remotely qualify as such an extreme practice and so is governed by the usual rule that probable cause [to suspect a crime] . . . `outbalances' private interest in avoiding police contact," the court said.

Justice Scalia said the decision does not deal with extreme actions by police involved in forceful home entries and physical penetration of a suspect's body.

"The Bill of Rights has become a victim of the war on crime, a scapegoat," said Natman Schaye, who had asked the court to rule the other way in a brief for 28,000 lawyers represented by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"It gives the police absolute license to do whatever they want as long as they see some violation of the law, even if it is going 56 miles per hour in a 55 zone," Mr. Schaye said in a telephone interview from Tucson, Ariz.

"I think it's a huge expansion of police power and it ought to concern anyone who drives a car," said Georgetown University law professor David Cole, who teaches constitutional law and police procedure.

Bill Johnson, a former policeman who is general counsel for the National Association of Police Organizations, said the strong ruling formalizes decisions and practices that are "good solid police work that's not unconstitutional. …