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Supreme Court Watch

November 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Can police arrest everyone riding in a car if they discover drugs are concealed there? The Supreme Court heard arguments today about the constitutional limits of suspicion, the first of three cases that will be argued this week about crime, punishment, and the Fourth Amendment. Inside the court today, and here to tell us more about it, is Jan Crawford Greenburg from The Chicago Tribune. Jan, welcome.

Now, tell us about this case before the court today. What brought it there?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it all started when a police officer saw a car about 3:15 in the morning, speeding and noticing that the driver didn’t have a seatbelt on. So he pulls the car over, asks to see the driver’s registration and license. The driver reaches into the glove compartment. The officer notices a big roll of cash but didn’t see anything that he could arrest them on, so started to give an oral warning.In the meantime, another officer pulls up, and both officers eventually conduct a search of this car.

Now, keep in mind the car had the driver, a passenger in the front seat and a passenger in the back. While they’re doing the search, the officers come across drugs stashed in the back seat behind an arm rest. The occupants of the vehicle all refused to say who the drugs belonged to, so the police arrest all three of them. So that’s how… I mean that’s the issue, were the police justified in arresting all of the occupants of the vehicle?

GWEN IFILL: Now, part of what happened is that, after they got to the police station, one of these occupants, the guy in the front seat, in the passenger’s seat says, “okay, it was mine, really it was mine.” And proceeds to say other incriminating things.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: He confessed, went to trial, was convicted, sentenced to ten years in prison.

GWEN IFILL: So doesn’t what he said afterward, at the police station, then justify the suspicion?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No, not at all. And in fact on appeal, he argued that police had no business arresting him in the first place. And since the arrest was illegal he argued, under the Fourth Amendment, then his confession also was illegal, had to be thrown out. And as a result, his conviction needed to be thrown out. And the Maryland, Maryland’s highest court of appeals where this incident took place, agreed with him and threw out his conviction because it said police had no business arresting him in the first place because here he was a passenger in a car sitting in the front seat…

GWEN IFILL: If he had been driving the car, would that have been different?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That would have been different because the driver could have had control over the vehicle. He just happened to be the passenger.

GWEN IFILL: Go with me on this. If he had been sitting in the back seat next to the place where they found the drugs concealed, would he have been… would that have been more reasonable?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That possibly could have been a different scenario, and a lawyer for the defendant said today, she conceded that, okay, the police could have arrested the driver here and possibly the passenger in the back seat because that’s where the drugs had been found but not her client.

GWEN IFILL: So the wider implications here, I presume is that if you’re giving me a ride home from a party on a Saturday night and you have something in the car that you’re not supposed to have and we both get pulled over, I can be, even though I knew nothing about the drugs in the car, be arrested and charged with it?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, arrested, taken downtown just because you happened to get a ride with the wrong person and unbeknownst to you, that person has stashed drugs in his vehicle. And that concerned the justices today. Justice O’Connor and Justice Kennedy both seemed very troubled by the potential impact of a ruling that gave police the discretion to arrest all the occupants of a vehicle.

Justice O’Connor really went to the real life implications of this case and asked, “what about a mother who is getting a ride to the grocery store with her son who she doesn’t know happens to be a drug dealer, or a boy who is getting a ride to school with some older relatives perhaps and he doesn’t realize of course there are drugs in the car? Could the boy be arrested? Could the mother be arrested? And lawyers for the state of Maryland and for the bush administration, which argued that police should have this authority today, they said, “no, those cases are different; police in this case looked at all the circumstances surrounding this arrest.

They looked at the time of night it was 3:15 in the morning, that there were three men all about the same age apparently friends, that there was a wad of cash in the glove compartment. All that, they said, created an inference of wrongdoing, an inference that a crime had occurred and justified the arrest. That wouldn’t be the case with the mother or the boy.

GWEN IFILL: Which of the justices appeared to show some sympathy for that argument today?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, very few. I thought at the beginning when Justice O’Connor and Justice Kennedy started down this line of questioning, that maybe they were sympathetic to the defendant. Justice Stevens also appeared to be sympathetic to the defendant and concerned about giving police this broad authority to arrest passengers in a vehicle. But by the end of the argument, it appeared that most of the Justices, even the more liberal Justices like Justice Souter and Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer, that they thought that perhaps the police had acted reasonably in this case.

And keep in mind, that’s what’s at issue here because the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. And if the police are going to make an arrest without a warrant as was true in this case, they have to reasonably believe that a crime has been committed. And these Justices today seemed to suggest that maybe the police weren’t acting so unreasonably.

GWEN IFILL: Now, on these other two cases which are being argued this week, it’s also about unreasonable search and seizure, in one case about search warrants.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. It’s a big week for criminal cases. Tomorrow we’re going to hear arguments in a case in which federal agents executed a defective search warrant. It didn’t properly list all the items that they were looking for or the places that they were going to search at a ranch in Montana. So that issue is a technical issue about whether or not the police officer, or the federal agent could be held liable for executing that defective warrant. Then on Wednesday, we get to a case that has extraordinary importance for drivers and gets to the scope of when police can set up roadblocks to detect wrongdoing. That case comes…

GWEN IFILL: Now, describe that case a little more for me because this is a guy who’s driving along and he is stopped at a roadblock but he is eventually arrested not for what the roadblock was set up to find.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. It comes from Illinois. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the roadblock was unconstitutional and that this man’s arrest also was illegal. The case came about because there had been a fatal hit-and-run of an elderly bicyclist at this intersection the week before. So police had set up a roadblock to stop drivers, pass out flyers ask if they had seen anything, any… this vehicle they had the description of. And along came Robert Lidster into this checkpoint.

Now, Mr. Lidster when he pulled up, the police officer noticed his breath smelled like alcohol. They subsequently did some so bright tests, you know, he had to do this, you know, field test. And he ended up getting arrested for drunk driving. He challenged his conviction saying that the roadblock was unconstitutional, that police couldn’t just set up these checkpoints to look for general evidence of wrongdoing or crimes being committed. And the Illinois Supreme Court agreed. So that case will give the Supreme Court a chance to define and give police guidance on when they can set up those kind of roadblocks.

GWEN IFILL: And finally and quickly, the court decided today they were not going to take up the Ten Commandments case, which we talked so much about from Alabama.


GWEN IFLL: And we don’t know of course why the court decides not to do things, but the could court has spoken to this issue in the past.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, this issue, no one really expected the court to take this issue up today, again, because it has been pretty clear and given pretty clear guidance to the lower courts that these monumental displays of religion that could create confusion on whether or not it’s a government endorsement of religion, that those violate the Constitution’s First Amendment, which requires that the church and state be kept separate. So they ended that battle. The chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, his quest to have that granite monument now is over. And it will have to be permanently removed from the state courthouse.

GWEN IFILL: All right, Jan Crawford Greenburg, thanks a lot.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Oh, you’re welcome.