This is an audio case brief of Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996).The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.
On the evening of June 10, 1993, plain-clothed vice-squad officers of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department were patrolling a “high drug area” of the city in an unmarked car. Their suspicions were aroused when they passed a dark Pathfinder truck with temporary license plates and youthful occupants waiting at a stop sign. The driver was looking down into the lap of the passenger at his right. The truck remained stopped at the intersection for what seemed an unusually long time—more than 20 seconds.
When the police car executed a U-turn in order to head back toward the truck, the Pathfinder turned suddenly to its right, without signaling, and sped off at an “unreasonable” speed. The policemen followed, and in a short while overtook the Pathfinder when it stopped behind other traffic at a red light. They pulled up alongside. And Officer Ephraim Soto stepped out and approached the driver’s door. He identified himself as a police officer and directed the driver, Brown, to put the vehicle in park. When Soto drew up to the driver’s window, he immediately observed two large plastic bags of what appeared to be crack cocaine in defendant Whren’s hands. Whren and Brown were arrested, and quantities of several types of illegal drugs were retrieved from the vehicle.
They were charged in a four-count indictment with violating various federal drug laws, including 21 U.S.C. §§ 844(a) and 860(a). At a pretrial suppression hearing, they challenged the legality of the stop and the resulting seizure of the drugs. They argued that the stop had not been justified by probable cause to believe, or even reasonable suspicion, that they were engaged in illegal drug-dealing activity; and that Officer Soto’s asserted ground for approaching the vehicle—to give the driver a warning concerning traffic violations—was pretextual.
The District Court denied the suppression motion, concluding that “the facts of the stop were not controverted,” and “there was nothing to really demonstrate that the actions of the officers were contrary to a normal traffic stop.”
The defendants were convicted of the counts at issue here. The Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions, holding with respect to the suppression issue that, “regardless of whether a police officer subjectively believes that the occupants of an automobile may be engaging in some other illegal behavior, a traffic stop is permissible as long as a reasonable officer in the same circumstances could have stopped the car for the suspected traffic violation.
The U.S Supreme court agreed to review the case.
Whether the temporary detention of a motorist who the police have probable cause to believe has committed a civil traffic violation is inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures unless a reasonable officer would have been motivated to stop the car by a desire to enforce the traffic laws.
The decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. Subjective intentions of the officer play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis.
Defendants accepted that the Officer Soto had probable cause to believe that various provisions of the District of Columbia traffic code had been violated. For example, part of the traffic code reads: “No person shall turn any vehicle … without giving an appropriate signal.” Another part reads: No person shall drive a vehicle … at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the conditions”. They argue, however, that “in the unique context of civil traffic regulations” probable cause is not enough. Because since, the use of automobiles is so heavily and minutely regulated that total compliance with traffic and safety rules is nearly impossible, a police officer will almost invariably be able to catch any given motorist in a technical violation. This creates the temptation to use traffic stops as a means of investigating other law violations, as to which no probable cause or even articulable suspicion exists. The defendants, who are both black, further argued that police officers might decide which motorists to stop based on decidedly impermissible factors, such as the race of the car’s occupants. To avoid this danger, they say, the Fourth Amendment test for traffic stops should be, not the normal one of whether probable cause existed to justify the stop; but rather, whether a police officer, acting reasonably, would have made the stop for the reason given.
But the court disagreed.
But fist the court acknowledged that that the Constitution prohibits selective enforcement of the law based on considerations such as race. However, the constitutional basis for objecting to intentionally discriminatory application of laws is the Equal Protection Clause, not the Fourth Amendment. Subjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis.
The defendants further argued that their intent is not to make the individual officer’s subjective good faith the touchstone of “reasonableness.” They insisted instead that the standard they have put forward—whether the officer’s conduct deviated materially from usual police practices, so that a reasonable officer in the same circumstances would not have made the stop for the reasons given—is an “objective” one.
But again the court disagreed with the defendants.
The court explained that the defendant’s approach is plainly and indisputably driven by subjective considerations. Its whole purpose is to prevent the police from doing under the guise of enforcing the traffic code what they would like to do for different reasons. The defendant’s proposed standard may not use the word “pretext,” but it is designed to combat nothing other than the perceived “danger” of the pretextual stop, albeit only indirectly and over the run of cases. Instead of asking whether the individual officer had the proper state of mind, the petitioners would have us ask, in effect, whether (based on general police practices) it is plausible to believe that the officer had the proper state of mind.
And this was a test that the court was unwilling to accept because the court reasoned that it would be difficult to plumb the collective consciousness of law enforcement in order to determine whether a “reasonable officer” would have been moved to act upon the traffic violation. While police manuals and standard procedures may sometimes provide objective assistance, ordinarily one would be reduced to speculating about the hypothetical reaction of a hypothetical constable—an exercise that might be called virtual subjectivity. Additionally, even if they could be practicably assessed by a judge, police enforcement practices, vary from place to place and from time to time.
This court was unwilling to accept that the search and seizure protections of the Fourth Amendment are so variable,and can be made to turn upon such trivialities.
The defendants next argued that the balancing inherent in any Fourth Amendment inquiry requires the court to weigh the governmental and individual interests implicated in a traffic stop such as have here. That balancing, defendants argued, does not support investigation of minor traffic infractions by plainclothes police in unmarked vehicles; such investigation only minimally advances the government’s interest in traffic safety, and may indeed retard it by producing motorist confusion and alarm.
But again, the court disagreed.
The court explained that, It is of course true that in principle every Fourth Amendment case, since it turns upon a “reasonableness” determination, involves a balancing of all relevant factors. With rare exceptions not applicable here, however, the result of that balancing is not in doubt where the search or seizure is based upon probable cause.
Where probable cause has existed, the only cases in which we have found it necessary actually to perform the “balancing” analysis involved searches or seizures conducted in an extraordinary manner, unusually harmful to an individual’s privacy or even physical interests—such as, for example, seizure by means of deadly force, unannounced entry into a home, entry into a home without a warrant, or physical penetration of the body. The making of a traffic stop out of uniform does not remotely qualify as such an extreme practice, and so is governed by the usual rule that probable cause to believe the law has been broken “outbalances” private interest in avoiding police contact.
The court held that we think there is no realistic alternative to the traditional common-law rule that probable cause justifies a search and seizure. The defendants convictions were affirmed.