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U.S. Supreme Court muddies the waters for traffic stops

Prosecutors are disappointed to find former friends Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in the majority yesterday with a case that limits when police can search the car of someone arrested at a traffic stop.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. Gant that  police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety threat to officers.

There are exceptions, though.  The majority in the 5-4 decision said that a warrantless search is permissible if the suspect might still have access to the passenger area of his car or if the car might hold evidence related to the reason for arrest.

It makes it hard to tell police when to search, said Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh.  “The water is already murky and now we’ve added an oil spill to it,” he said.

“A lot people may end up getting their cars towed,” said Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey  Bryant.  He noted that the decision does not affect the rules for inventory searchs of vehicles that are impounded by police.

Bryant expressed surprise to find Scalia writing about a “charade of officer safety” in his concurring opinion.  “He has been Old Reliable in cases like this for law enforcement,” Bryant said, calling Scalia’s language strong and unfair in its characterization of previous cases.

Officer counseling already has begun for Botetourt County Commonwealth’s Attorney Joel Branscom.  “We sent out something to them about the case today,” he said.  “We sat down with some of the guys.”

Vehicle searches related to traffic stops are common, Branscom said.  “It comes up all the time.”  He expects officers will be quicker to get search warrants in light of the Gant opinion.

By Peter Vieth

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