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Whren v. United States

Brief Fact Summary. A stopped vehicle attracted the attention of a vice officer. A subsequent chase and search revealed drugs.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. In a conventional civil traffic stop, the Fourth Amendment is met by the traditional common-law rule that probable cause justifies a search and seizure.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

The Court rejected an approach that would consider 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.

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Facts. A truck stopped at an intersection for an unusually long time attracted the attention of a vice-squad officer patrolling a “high drug” area of D.C. When the police officer made a U-turn, the truck turned and sped off. The officer caught up with the truck, and forced it to pull over. The officer went to the truck and immediately saw two bags of crack cocaine.

Issue. “[W]hether 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 traffic law.”

Held. No. The petitioners’ argument was that a new standard should be imposed for such circumstances: “whether a police officer, acting reasonably, would have made the stop for the reason give.” The court cited extensive precedent that showed, regardless of the “pretext” of the officer’s action, an arrest “would not be rendered invalid” and that a “lawful postarrest search of the person would not be rendered invalid by the fact that it was not motivated by the officer-safety concern that justifies such searches.”

Discussion. “For the run-of-the-mine case . . . there is no realistic alternative to the traditional common-law rule that probable cause justifies a search and seizure.”

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