WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to review a challenge of police powers in car searches, the latest post-Sept. 11 example of the justices’ siding with law enforcement in a privacy case.
The case, while not related directly to the government’s war against terror, raised questions about police authority, which has come under increased scrutiny. Federal judges are also being asked in other cases to decide whether national security justifies curbing previously recognized civil freedoms.
The case that justices turned down Monday involved police searching a vehicle without a warrant after the driver failed to produce proper identification or proof of ownership.
Justices had been asked to overturn a California ruling that expanded police powers and allowed the searches. They declined, without comment.
The case involved people whose cars were searched after they failed to give officers their driver’s licenses and car registrations. Officers decided to search for registration and found drugs.
The state court said warrantless searches were allowed wherever documents “reasonably may be expected to be found.” Previously, authorities were allowed to search a car’s sun visor and glove compartment for identification papers without a warrant.
Government search powers and related authority issues before the Supreme Court have received increased attention since the terrorist attacks.
Louisiana State University law professor John Baker said some judges may be influenced by current events.
“The careful judges and lawyers are aware of the climate we’re in, but they’re not going to give in to panic on either side,” he said.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Supreme Court has ruled that police can question passengers on buses and trains and search for evidence without letting them know they can refuse.
Justices also ruled that officers can go into the homes of people on probation to search for evidence of new crimes without always getting warrants.
They also agreed to review a ruling that questions the way the government catches and charges suspected drug dealers and terrorists.
National security fears also motivated legal challenges waiting on federal court dockets elsewhere.
“It’s a part of a general trend in the Supreme Court and lower federal courts to chip away, sometimes with a big ax and a big whack, at what were 10 to 15 years ago clearly established privacy rights that had support across the political spectrum,” said David Kairys, who teaches constitutional law at Temple University.
Ron Right, a criminal law professor at Wake Forest University, warned against reading too much into Monday’s Supreme Court action in the police search case. The Supreme Court gets thousands of petitions each year and reviews about 80, he pointed out.
“They have all sorts of reasons to say no,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that “in these times, civil liberties groups and others are especially alert to find signs that the government is overreaching when it investigates, so I think their antennae are up, and I think they are looking at courts for signs.”
The cases are Arturo D. v. California, 01-9812, and Hinger v. California, 01-10107.
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