NewsBriefs BUTTONS

Consensual Drug Searches During Traffic Stops Upheld by Supreme Court


December 1996

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on November 18 that police who stop motorists for traffic violations do not have to inform drivers that they are free to go before asking permission to search their vehicles for illegal drugs (Ohio v. Robinette, No. 95-891, 1996WL662461, 60CrL2002, (November 18, 1996); Joan Biskupic, "Justices Uphold Consensual Police Searches of Cars During Traffic Stops," Washington Post, November 19, 1996, p. A8; Linda Greenhouse, "Supreme Court Upholds Police Methods in Vehicle Drug Searches," New York Times, November 19, 1996, p. A23).

Writing for the court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said it would be "unrealistic to require police officers to always inform detainees that they are free to go before a consent to search may be deemed voluntary." The U.S. Supreme Court relied on a 1973 ruling that said an individual who is asked to consent to a search does not have to be told that he may refuse.

The case involved Robert D. Robinette, who was stopped for speeding in 1992 on Interstate 70 in Ohio. After verifying that Robinette had no prior violations and giving him a verbal warning about speeding, Sheriff's Deputy Roger Newsome asked the driver, "Are you carrying any illegal contraband in your car? Any weapons of any kind, drugs, anything like that?" Robinette said "no" and then consented to Newsome's request to search his car. In the search Newsome discovered a small amount of marijuana and one pill of "Ecstasy." The state trial court denied Robinette's request to suppress the drug evidence because the search was not truly voluntary, and found him guilty of possessing illegal drugs. Robinette appealed.

In 1995, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the conviction (Ohio v. Robinette, 653 N.E.2d 695, 57CrL1590, (September 6, 1995)), ruling that a driver's consent to a search is invalid unless the individual is informed " 'At this time you are legally free to go' or by words of similar import" before the consent to search is requested. Ohio's high court said motorists need to know when they are no longer obliged to cooperate so that officers could not "turn a routine traffic stop into a fishing expedition for unrelated criminal activity."

In reversing the Ohio Supreme Court's ruling, Rehnquist said the "totality of the circumstances" rather than a particular formula should be used in applying Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. A search warrant or probable cause is generally needed before police conduct a search without consent. However, neither of these criteria applies if an individual consents to a search. Ohio's appeal was supported by 36 states and the Clinton Administration. Ohio's Attorney General said the decision "allows Ohio's peace officers to continue using this valuable weapon in their war against drugs."

The vote was 8-1 because Justice John Paul Stevens, while agreeing with Court's constitutional analysis, voted to affirm the Ohio Supreme Court's judgment. In a separate opinion, Justice Stevens wrote that the search of Robinette's car was invalid because he had been unlawfully detained. Stevens also wrote, "It is important to emphasize that nothing in the federal Constitution -- or in this Court's opinion -- prevents a state from requiring its law enforcement officers to give detained motorists the advice mandated by the Ohio Court." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg agreed with that idea in a concurring opinion, saying the Ohio Supreme Court was free to base its decision on state law, rather than Federal constitutional law.