Washington State Supreme Court Limits Vehicle Searches

In an 8-1 decision last Thursday, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant to search a vehicle even if they believe it contains evidence of the crime for which the person was arrested.

The decision in State v. Snapp overturns the convictions of two men in unrelated but consolidated cases where police stopped drivers and then found drugs in their vehicles while searching them.

The ruling also extends the Washington state constitution's Fourth Amendment privacy protections beyond those granted to other US citizens under the current interpretation of federal constitutional law. In 2009, the US Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. Gant that such searches were permissible under the Fourth Amendment.

In Gant, the court held that police must obtain a search warrant to search a vehicle, but allowed two exceptions: a limited search for weapons for officer safety and if the officer reasonably believed the vehicle contained evidence of the crime for which the person had been arrested.

While the Washington Supreme Court ruling found that the officer safety exemption already exists under the state constitution, it held that searches of a vehicle for evidence of the crime for which the person was already existed is not allowed under Article I, Section 7 of the state constitution, which enumerates protections against illegal search and seizure under state law.

The near-unanimous decision came over the protests of prosecutors, who complained that making officers get search warrants to search a vehicle after arrest will take up too much time and would have other, unspecified impacts on law enforcement.

"These delays will only multiply if a warrant is required for every stop at 2 a.m. on a Friday night in which the officer concludes it is reasonable to believe there is evidence of the crime of arrest in the vehicle," wrote James Whisman, a senior deputy prosecutor with the King County Prosecutor's Office. "Scores of such arrests occur in any given jurisdiction in any 24-hour period."

But as the high court noted, while "a warrantless search of an automobile is permissible under the search incident to arrest exception when that search is necessary to preserve officer safety or prevent destruction or concealment of evidence of the crime of arrest," it had already "rejected the idea that the existence of probable cause alone can justify a warrantless search of a vehicle. While probable cause is a necessary condition for obtaining a warrant, it does not itself justify a search. Contrary to the urgency attending the search incident to arrest to preserve officer safety and prevent destruction or concealment of evidence, there is no similar necessity associated with a warrantless search based upon either a reasonable belief or probable cause to believe that evidence of the crime of arrest is in the vehicle."

In its opinion, the court clearly held that the rights of Washingtonians to be free of warrantless searches trump the right of law enforcement not to be inconvenienced.

Washington is not the only state where state courts have found rights in the state constitution beyond what the US Supreme Court has found in the US Constitution. In Alaska, for one example, the state courts have upheld the right of adults to possess limited amounts of marijuana in their homes. In Pennsylvania, in another, the state courts have used state law to strike down school drug testing programs that had been okayed under federal Supreme Court jurisprudence.

– Article originally from Stop the Drug War.