You should be forgiven for any sneaking suspicions you may have that the nine elders in black dresses who have the final word on matters legal in the U. S. don’t spend much time driving. After all, the Supreme Court can’t seem to get enough of stripping Fourth Amendment protections from Americans’ favorite mode of transportation. Any more decisions like Maryland v. Dyson and we may be forced to drive vehicles as transparent as Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. In the recent case the justices addressed the concerns of Kevin Darnell Dyson, a “known” drug dealer in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
County sheriff’s deputies “received a tip from a reliable confidential informant that respondent had gone to New York to buy drugs. ” When Dyson was later spotted in a rented red Toyota Corolla, the cops summarily pulled him over, tossed his car, and found 23 grams of crack in the trunk. Now, nothing in the available information suggests that Dyson was a pillar of the community. He may well have been a professional drug dealer (the rights and wrongs of drug prohibition are a matter for another article), and crack, after all was found in his car.
But in deciding that the boys in blue of St. Mary’s County, Maryland were just hunky-dory in pulling Tyson over and giving his car the third degree, the Supremes haven’t just opened the door to police abuse; they’ve taken a chainsaw to the frame to make the opening wider. In this case, the police claimed to be acting on a confidential tip, they had a full day of lead time, and they still didn’t bother to run their evidence by the hangingest judge in the county for the courtesy of a warrant.
What does that say about the quality of the information in the case? According to the court documents, the “evidence” amounted to the cops’ word and the “probable cause” amounted to the cops’ whim. Such grounds for a search could be scared up against any car on the road. Prior to reaching the Supreme Court, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals had held that hauling the likes of Dyson to the side of the road for a little personal attention was kosher only if police couldn’t get to a judge for a John Hancock on a piece of paper.
The Supremes didn’t agree, and now we’re all subject a roadside visit by any police officer who can cook up probable cause up to the standards of an alleged bad reputation and a phone call. Which is to say, don’t make any enemies on the local police force not unless your ash tray is squeaky clean. Unfortunately, this latest decision was no surprise. The Supreme Court has routinely ruled that cars are Fourth Amendment-free zones. No too long ago, in Wyoming v. Houghton, the court essentially stripped passengers in cars of any protection once the driver was fingered for some mischief.
That was an extension of 1997’s Maryland v. Wilson, which allowed police to roust passengers from a car during a routine traffic stop. The trouble actually follows an unbroken line back to 1925’s Carroll v. United States, when Prohibition-era mania first bred a Fourth Amendment exception for cars. The War on Drugs has embedded a chain of such decisions in concrete in the name of “necessity. ” This line of legal developments is even more troubling in the light of the current controversy over racial profiling.
Police departments around the country are accused of stopping travelers for extensive questioning and searches based on “scientific” criteria that add up to little more than a black guy in a nice car. The continued erosion of Forth Amendment protections for automobiles has the potential to compound such abuses for minorities, or allow police departments to replace spurious racial criteria with equally bogus “probable cause” justifications for whim-driven traffic stops.
As the law now stands, the only place in a car that cops can’t go poking through is your pockets particularly if you’re a passenger and not the driver. No matter how comfortable you feel with the windows rolled up, the radio cranked, and the glove compartment locked-up tight, you should assume that the police can pull you over at will and turn that nice upholstery inside out in search of the latest contraband-of-the-week. But you can bet that none of the Supreme Court justices will ever run into that particular roadside delay.