Whren v. United States 517 U.S. 806, 116 S. Ct. 1769, 135 L. Ed.2d 89 (1996)
The police noticed Whren and
another guy (two young, black men) driving a fancy new truck in a run-down
drug infested area in a suspicious manner. The truck made a turn without
signaling and drove off at an 'unreasonable' speed. The police pulled the
truck over for the minor traffic violation, and when the policeman looked
inside, he noticed Whren holding bags of drugs. The two were arrested.
The police were in an
unmarked police car, and DC police regulations only allow plainclothes
police to enforce traffic violations when they are "so grave as to
pose an immediate threat to others."
It is a waste of resources.
It also can spook people to
see an unmarked car coming after them. They may think it is in attacker
and drive erratically in order to escape...
The Trial Court convicted
Whren of drug possession. He appealed.
Whren argued that the police
had no probable cause to suspect
that he was dealing drugs. The police claim that they were pulled over
for the minor traffic infraction was pretextual, and just an excuse to search their vehicle.
That search was therefore unreasonable and a violation of Whren's 4th
The policemen admitted in
court that they didn't care about the traffic violation, it was just an
excuse to pull them over.
The Appellate Court upheld the
conviction. Whren appealed.
The Appellate Court found
that "regardless of whether a police officer subjectively believes
that the occupants of an automobile may be engaging in some other illegal
behavior, a traffic stop is permissible as long as a reasonable
officer in the same circumstances
could have stopped the car for the suspected traffic violation."
On objective standard.
The US Supreme Court upheld
The US Supreme Court found
that as long as the police had probable cause to believe that a violation had occurred, they
were within their powers to search the vehicle, regardless of any
underlying motive for wanting to perform the search.
Whren unsuccessfully argued
that it is almost impossible to drive without making at least some minor
traffic violations occasionally, so this ruling would give the police
the ability to search pretty much anyone at any time.
The Court noted that if
they bought Whren's argument, they'd have to figure out which
particular provisions are sufficiently important to merit enforcement.
That's just not a realistic alternative.
The Court rejected the
Appellate Court's 'reasonable officer' test, and said that it would be
very difficult to determine reasonableness. The only important thing is
the subjective opinion of the policeman on the scene that he has probable
The Court felt that if they
ruled that making a pretextual
stop was not allowed, the courts would have to rule on pretextuality,
and sometimes that's such a subtle difference that it would be very
difficult to determine.
What if a reasonable
officer would pull someone over for that violation 10% of the time?
The Court looked at the
common law precedent and found that historically as long as there was probable
cause and it was in a criminal law enforcement
context, the courts have never considered the reasonableness of the
search or the intent of the policeman. Probable cause presumes reasonableness.
Conversely, searches not
based primarily on criminal law enforcement (such as metal detectors at airports)
do require an inquiry into
intent, but they do not require individualized suspicion or probable
Whren had argued that the
police stopped him because of his race, but the Court found that would be
an Equal Protection Clause issue,
not a 4th Amendment issue, and Whren did not
bring it up at trial, so they wouldn't consider it here.
Colloquially known as being
pulled over for, "driving while black."
The basic rule here is that when
the police observe a traffic violation, they automatically have probable
cause to stop the offending vehicle
and to issue a citation or a warning to its driver. With probable
cause thus established, any
incriminating evidence of the traffic violation or any other criminal
activity found by a policeman in plain view within the stopped vehicle
could legally be seized and used as evidence in court.
The reason the reasonable
officer test is unworkable is that the
police can't pull over everybody for minor traffic violations, and they can't pull over nobody for minor traffic violations. So they always
have to make choices about how and where to enforce the law.
In a way, the jurisprudence of
this case is similar to that regarding the Interstate Commerce Clause. As long as you can make a reasonable argument
for your actions, even if they are pretextual and your intent is
elsewhere, the actions are allowed.