Whren v. United States
517 U.S. 806, 116 S. Ct. 1769, 135 L. Ed.2d 89 (1996)

  • The police noticed Whren and another guy (two young, black men) driving a fancy new truck in a run-down drug infested area in a suspicious manner. The truck made a turn without signaling and drove off at an ‘unreasonable’ speed. The police pulled the truck over for the minor traffic violation, and when the policeman looked inside, he noticed Whren holding bags of drugs. The two were arrested.
    • The police were in an unmarked police car, and DC police regulations only allow plainclothes police to enforce traffic violations when they are “so grave as to pose an immediate threat to others.”
      • It is a waste of resources.
      • It also can spook people to see an unmarked car coming after them. They may think it is in attacker and drive erratically in order to escape…
  • The Trial Court convicted Whren of drug possession. He appealed.
    • Whren argued that the police had no probable cause to suspect that he was dealing drugs. The police claim that they were pulled over for the minor traffic infraction was pretextual, and just an excuse to search their vehicle. That search was therefore unreasonable and a violation of Whren’s 4th Amendment rights.
      • The policemen admitted in court that they didn’t care about the traffic violation, it was just an excuse to pull them over.
  • The Appellate Court upheld the conviction. Whren appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found 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.”
      • On objective standard.
  • The US Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
    • The US Supreme Court found that as long as the police had probable cause to believe that a violation had occurred, they were within their powers to search the vehicle, regardless of any underlying motive for wanting to perform the search.
      • Whren unsuccessfully argued that it is almost impossible to drive without making at least some minor traffic violations occasionally, so this ruling would give the police the ability to search pretty much anyone at any time.
        • The Court noted that if they bought Whren’s argument, they’d have to figure out which particular provisions are sufficiently important to merit enforcement. That’s just not a realistic alternative.
    • The Court rejected the Appellate Court’s ‘reasonable officer’ test, and said that it would be very difficult to determine reasonableness. The only important thing is the subjective opinion of the policeman on the scene that he has probable cause.
      • The Court felt that if they ruled that making a pretextual stop was not allowed, the courts would have to rule on pretextuality, and sometimes that’s such a subtle difference that it would be very difficult to determine.
        • What if a reasonable officer would pull someone over for that violation 10% of the time?
    • The Court looked at the common law precedent and found that historically as long as there was probable cause and it was in a criminal law enforcement context, the courts have never considered the reasonableness of the search or the intent of the policeman. Probable cause presumes reasonableness.
      • Conversely, searches not based primarily on criminal law enforcement (such as metal detectors at airports) do require an inquiry into intent, but they do not require individualized suspicion or probable cause.
    • Whren had argued that the police stopped him because of his race, but the Court found that would be an Equal Protection Clause issue, not a 4th Amendment issue, and Whren did not bring it up at trial, so they wouldn’t consider it here.
      • Colloquially known as being pulled over for, “driving while black.”
  • The basic rule here is that when the police observe a traffic violation, they automatically have probable cause to stop the offending vehicle and to issue a citation or a warning to its driver. With probable cause thus established, any incriminating evidence of the traffic violation or any other criminal activity found by a policeman in plain view within the stopped vehicle could legally be seized and used as evidence in court.
  • The reason the reasonable officer test is unworkable is that the police can’t pull over everybody for minor traffic violations, and they can’t pull over nobody for minor traffic violations. So they always have to make choices about how and where to enforce the law.
  • In a way, the jurisprudence of this case is similar to that regarding the Interstate Commerce Clause. As long as you can make a reasonable argument for your actions, even if they are pretextual and your intent is elsewhere, the actions are allowed.