Cops generally need warrants to search your house, but courts have been very lenient — past the point of logic — in letting them search cars. The rationale has usually been that a car might be driven away, thwarting a dogged officer's quest for a search warrant. Moreover, courts have generally let cops search cars "incident to the arrest" of the driver or passenger on the thin pretext that the driver might lunge into the back seat and grab a weapon or something.
Today SCOTUS put a rational limit on such exceptions to the warrant requirement, ruling that cops cannot search a car incident to an arrest once the guy they've arrested is handcuffed and locked in the back of their cruiser and therefore unlikely to retrieve a weapon from the car. The opinion is here. Pay particular attention to Scalia's opinion, in which he is characteristically unmoved by the argument that the Court must respect wrongly decided precedent, and in which he thwarts the simplistic liberal/conservative view of Fourth Amendment interpretation by urging a result considerably more protective of privacy rights than Justice Stevens's majority opinion. Scalia also points out the perverse incentive created by the Court's ruling — cops can search a car without a warrant if they haven't arrested the driver yet, but not if they have, thus encouraging cops to leave the driver unsecured to justify a search.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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