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Whren v. United States

Supreme Court of the United States

April 17, 1996, Argued ; June 10, 1996, Decided

No. 95-5841.

Opinion

 [***94]   [*808]   [**1771]  JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

 In this case we decide whether 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  [**1772]  would have been motivated to stop the car by a desire to enforce the traffic laws.

On the evening of June 10, 1993, plainclothes vice-squad officers of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department were patrolling a "high drug area" of the city in an unmarked car. Their suspicions were aroused when they passed a dark [***95]  Pathfinder truck with temporary license plates and youthful occupants waiting at a stop sign, the driver looking down into the lap of the passenger at his right. The truck remained stopped at the intersection for what seemed an unusually long time -- more than 20 seconds. When the police car executed [****6]  a U-turn in order to head back toward the truck, the Pathfinder turned suddenly to its right, without signaling, and sped off at an "unreasonable" speed. The policemen followed, and in a short while overtook the Pathfinder when it stopped behind other traffic at a red light. They pulled up alongside, and Officer Ephraim Soto stepped out and approached the driver's door, identifying himself as a police officer and directing the driver, petitioner Brown, to put the vehicle in park. When Soto drew up to the driver's  [*809]  window, he immediately observed two large plastic bags of what appeared to be crack cocaine in petitioner Whren's hands. Petitioners were arrested, and quantities of several types of illegal drugs were retrieved from the vehicle.

Petitioners were charged in a four-count indictment with violating various federal drug laws, including 21 U.S.C. §§ 844(a) and 860(a). At a pretrial suppression hearing, they challenged the legality of the stop and the resulting seizure of the drugs. They argued that the stop had not been justified by probable cause to believe, or even reasonable suspicion, that petitioners were engaged in illegal drug-dealing activity; and that Officer [****7]  Soto's asserted ground for approaching the vehicle -- to give the driver a warning concerning traffic violations -- was pretextual. The District Court denied the suppression motion, concluding that "the facts of the stop were not controverted," and "there was nothing to really demonstrate that the actions of the officers were contrary to a normal traffic stop." App. 5.

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517 U.S. 806 *; 116 S. Ct. 1769 **; 135 L. Ed. 2d 89 ***; 1996 U.S. LEXIS 3720 ****; 64 U.S.L.W. 4409; 96 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4123; 96 Daily Journal DAR 6635; 9 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 652

MICHAEL A. WHREN AND JAMES L. BROWN, PETITIONERS v. UNITED STATES

Prior History:  [****1]  ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.

Disposition: 311 U.S. App. D.C. 300, 53 F.3d 371, affirmed.

CORE TERMS

probable cause, pretext, traffic, cases, traffic stop, seizure, regulations, balancing, invalid, arrest, reasonable officer, inspection, driver, traffic violation, inventory search, police officer, the Fourth Amendment, circumstances, petitioners', motivations, practices, suspicion, motorist

Constitutional Law, Fundamental Rights, Search & Seizure, Probable Cause, Criminal Law & Procedure, Warrantless Searches, Vehicle Searches, Bill of Rights, General Overview, Administrative Searches, Search Warrants, Probable Cause, Sensory Perceptions, Inventory Searches, Equal Protection, Judicial Review, Standards of Review, Nature & Scope of Protection, Transportation Law, Commercial Vehicles, Traffic Regulation, Vehicle Searches