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Pretext Traffic Stops: Whren v. United States

NCJ Number
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 65 Issue: 11 Dated: (November 1996) Pages: 28-32
J C Hall
Date Published
5 pages
This article explains the facts and the rationale of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Whren v. United States (1996), and implications are drawn for law enforcement.
The issue in the case was a vehicle stop that led to a vehicle search that yielded the presence of illegal drugs in the vehicle and in the possession of a passenger. Defendants sought to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the vehicle stop was pretextual. They argued the vehicle stop was not supported by probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion, that the defendants were engaged in illegal drug activity. They also contended that the officers used the pretense of making a traffic stop to investigate for evidence of other crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court noted the district court's finding that the officers had probable cause to believe the defendants had violated the traffic code. Consequently, the vehicle stop was reasonable under the fourth amendment, the evidence thereby discovered was admissible, and the appellate court's upholding of the convictions was correct. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in "Whren" affirms the Court's earlier rulings that neither an officer's intent nor motivation is relevant to the fourth amendment standard of "reasonableness" and rejects the notion that the "would have" test is consistent with that standard. The "Whren" decision continues to permit officer discretion in the enforcement of traffic and other relatively minor violations. The fourth amendment requirements of probable cause to make arrests and reasonable suspicion to conduct investigative detentions continue to provide safeguards against unreasonable police actions in those contexts. Finally, the fourth amendment balancing test continues to provide a safeguard in those instances where the probable cause and reasonable suspicion standards are not practical, i.e., inventories and administrative searches. 20 notes