This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.
Editor’s Note: In a troubling decision this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a traffic stop and vehicle search were lawful even though the police officer made a mistake of law in pulling the vehicle over. The decision stems from a case in which a North Carolina officer pulled over a vehicle for a faulty brake light, even though this is not a violation of North Carolina law. A subsequent vehicle search revealed drugs, and the defendant was ultimately convicted of drug trafficking. At trial, the defendant argued the search should not have been allowed since the officer had no valid reason to conduct the stop in the first place. The high court disagreed, stating that a traffic stop can be upheld as long as the officer’s mistake is “reasonable.” The sole dissent came from Justice Sotomayor who argued that the court was “further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.”
We couldn’t agree more and have commented frequently on the continuing erosion of motorists’ civil rights, on the road and in the courtroom. Here’s what we said in this 2011 e-newsletter:
NMA E-Newsletter #119: The Pressure To Redefine Our Rights
We don’t particularly like to report every few months about attacks on the Fourth Amendment, but here we go again. The crucial protection afforded U.S. citizens against unlawful search and seizure by that key component of the Bill of Rights continues to face challenges.
In Tracking the Fourth Amendment, an NMA newsletter from last August, the conflicting decisions from two different U.S. appellate courts regarding the planting of a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle without the issuance of a court order were detailed. We predicted (and still predict) that this matter will eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A January newsletter, The People v. Gregory Diaz, presented the situation of a California defendant whose cell phone was confiscated during arrest. The police downloaded personal information from the phone, including potentially incriminating text messages, without a search warrant. That information was used as evidence to convict Diaz. An appeal made its way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled the warrantless evidence admissible.
If current legislation proposed by Texas State Senator Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) passes into law, the chipping away of our Fourth Amendment rights will continue. Among the provisions of the Williams bill:
- State police would not be required to get a warrant before planting a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle as long as that vehicle is part of a criminal investigation and is parked on public property.
- The Texas Department of Public Safety would be directed to create a pilot program to install automatic license plate readers in state troopers’ cars.
- Fingerprints collected for Texas driver license renewals would be run through various governmental databases to search for individuals with outstanding complaints.
The Dallas Morning News noted that “. . . some ideas (to help combat drug trade), such as checkpoints to ask drivers for their licenses, missed the mark with constituents and have been set aside, at least for now” and that Texas lawmakers like Williams are proposing new ideas to give the police more authority.
The overriding issues are the constitutionality of these kinds of enhanced police powers and the cost to our civil rights. The U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide and we, as motorists and as citizens, should have more than just a passing interest in the debate leading up to that point.