US Supreme Court Decision May Impact Fourth Amendment Defenses

A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court adds to the extensive body of law interpreting the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searchers and seizures in the context of a vehicle search.

In the case, local authorities had received an anonymous tip about an alleged reckless driver. The source on the 911 call claimed that another vehicle — which she identified by its license plate number — had forced her off the road. The authorities soon found the truck and followed it for about five minutes. Although they did not observe erratic driving, they still pulled the driver over.

The authorities may have assumed that alcohol or drugs were behind the alleged reckless driving incident. However, their conversation with the truck driver dispelled that theory. Yet even after ascertaining that the driver was not drunk, authorities proceeded to search his truck. Only then did authorities discover that the driver was transporting 30 pounds of marijuana, at which point they arrested him for a drug crime.

In a 5-4 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the search. However, the dissenting opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia gives the accused’s defense arguments considerable discussion. According to the dissent, an anonymous tip gave the authorities legal justification for observing the truck for signs of erratic driving. The justification for the authorities’ subsequent actions, however, is less clear.

A criminal defense attorney knows that a search of a person and/or his or her property generally must be legally justified. In this case, the accused claimed that authorities had no legal justification to search his vehicle after determining that he was not driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In fact, authorities had not even observed any signs of erratic driving, calling into question the justification for the stop in the first place.

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