To enhance officer safety and convenience

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted December 1998

Fortunately, even the most traditionally "law-and-order" members of the U.S. Supreme Court seemed both surprised and skeptical November 3 when confronted with the broad discretion which Iowa now grants its police to search drivers pulled over for routine traffic violations ... even without any "probable cause" to believe a further crime has been committed.

Appellant Patrick Knowles was stopped for speeding on March 6, 1996, in Newton, Iowa. An officer gave Knowles a speeding ticket and then informed him he had a right to search Knowles and his cart, which the cop proceeded to do.

The search turned up a pipe and a small quantity of marijuana, which Iowa courts allowed to be used as evidence. Knowles was convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail, but is now appealing based on the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

"If somebody jaywalks, the police could search them?" asked Justice John Paul Stevens.

"Correct," explained Iowa Assistant Attorney General Bridget A. Chambers.

Justice Antonin Scalia then asked Ms. Chambers whether an officer could stop someone, arrest and search them, and then drop the arrest. Yes, she said.

"Wow," the justice responded.

The record of the initial court case reveals that arresting Officer Ronald Cook was "disarmingly candid" on the subject of probable cause, in the phrase of long-term court watcher James J. Kilpatrick.

"Anything you observed lead you to believe or give you probable cause to believe that he was involved in criminal activity?" the officer was asked.

"Not on this date, no," he responded.

"It was your understanding that simply because you had issued him a citation that that gave you the right to search him and his vehicle?"

"Yes, ma'am."

About 400 000 people are given traffic tickets each year in Iowa, Knowles' lawyer, Paul Rosenberg, told the high court Tuesday. But police invoke their authority to conduct searches only selectively, since if everyone given a traffic ticket were searched, "the people wouldn't stand for it."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist reminded the parties that police already have authority to conduct a search following an arrest, to protect their own safety and to preserve evidence.

But regarding a need to preserve evidence, the chief justice added, "When you have a traffic stop, you're not going to find any more evidence of speeding when you search a person's car."

The Supreme Court's 1973 decision allows police to conduct a "search incident to arrest," noted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. But "You want to turn it around and have an arrest incident to search. ... It seems to me that would be an abuse of authority."

"It does seem an enormous amount of authority to put into the hands of the police," agreed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Regular observers of the court warn us not to draw too many conclusions from the jurists' questions alone -- the justices have been known to play devil's advocate, challenging the position of a party whose side they actually intend to favor, in order to better develop their own arguments.

But this sounds like a case where the court's astonishment over Iowa's brazen defiance of the Constitutional ban on "unreasonable" and warrantless searches was no sham.

The notion that we should not object to government agents stopping and frisking any passer-by since "It's for the protection of everyone" and "The innocent have nothing to fear," is the next-to-last stop on the one-way trainride to tyranny.

Yes, such measures appear to make the policeman's lot a bit easier, in the short run. But once the populace begin to see these officers not as friendly keepers of the peace and protectors of our liberties, but rather as a hostile occupying army, patting us down and muscling through our belongings at will, that could quickly change.

As the Hessians learned in 1776.

The high court is expected to rule in the case of Mr. Knowles by July. Let us hope the Supremes set a firm high water mark for this particular tide of tyranny, and begin to roll it back. Cops deserve our praise and support when they undertake the dangerous job of chasing down violent thugs and felons -- but not when they turn to rummaging through our pockets, our glove compartments, and our sock drawers.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at The web sites for the Suprynowicz column are at, and The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

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