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A divided California Supreme Court broadened police powers Thursday by giving officers more leeway to conduct warrantless searches during routine traffic stops. The 5-2 ruling drew a sharp dissent from Justice Joyce Kennard, who invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in arguing that the court’s decision betrays the nation’s founding principles of personal liberty at a time when they should be honored more than ever. “Today’s majority decision does nothing to enhance our security,” Kennard huffed, “and does much to erode our Fourth Amendment rights” against unreasonable searches and seizures. The ruling, authored by Chief Justice Ronald George, permits limited warrantless searches for vehicle registration papers and driver’s licenses, clarifying that officers need not narrow their searches to glove compartments and other “traditional” repositories for such documents. “Limited warrantless searches for required registration and identification documentation,” George wrote, “are permissible when … the officer conducts a search for those documents in an area where such documents reasonably may be expected to be found.” Justices Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin and Carlos Moreno concurred with George. Thursday’s decision in In re Arturo D., 02 C.D.O.S. 647, involved two separate traffic stops in Suisun City and Orange County, Calif., where officers looked under the vehicles’ seats and discovered methamphetamine. The arrest of minor Arturo D. in the Solano County case was thrown out by California’s 1st District Court of Appeal, which found that the officer’s search “went beyond that justified by the need to locate registration.” But the 4th District upheld Randall Hinger’s arrest in Orange County, calling the search of his car reasonable under the circumstances. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar concurred Thursday with the majority ruling authorizing limited warrantless searches of “traditional repositories,” but she disagreed that the space beneath a seat falls into that category. “Failure to place limits on such searches,” she wrote, “runs the risk of obliterating the rule requiring that exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement be narrow and well delineated.” Werdegar also dissented from the majority holding that officers have the right to search for a driver’s license in the first place. While it’s an infraction not to possess a license while behind the wheel of a car, she noted, there is no law authorizing officers to search for licenses when drivers say they don’t have them. Kennard’s dissent argued that the majority’s “unprecedented decision … flies in the face” of Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 rejected a similar search by an Iowa officer, saying it violated the Fourth Amendment. “In trying to distinguish this case from Knowles,” Kennard wrote, “the majority points out that the blanket rule it adopts today would authorize only a limited search for a driver’s license or vehicle registration in those areas of a car where such documents ‘reasonably may be expected to be found.’ … But the car searches here were far from ‘limited.’ “ Justice Janice Rogers Brown joined Kennard’s dissent. San Diego-based Deputy Attorney General Alana Butler, who argued for the state in the case against Hinger, said Thursday that the ruling makes officers’ jobs easier. “It doesn’t change the status quo that much,” she said, “and gives officers a little bit more definition about what their boundaries are when they pull people over.” Alexander Green, a Berkeley, Calif., solo practitioner who represented Arturo D., called the ruling a “weak opinion” and said there’s a chance he will seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. “Most of these laws impact poorer people, people police are going to be suspicious of anyway, and this gives [cops] more license to effect far greater searches,” he said. “This is allowing a search without any probable cause whatsoever, which is antithetical to the Fourth Amendment.” Oddly enough, considering her dissent, Kennard wasn’t the justice who raised the specter of Sept. 11 at oral argument in November. That distinction belongs to Chin, who asked if it wasn’t imperative for officers to know who they are pulling over, “in light of the events of Sept. 11.” Kennard’s spin turned the focus on her fellow justices, saying that in light of Sept. 11, Americans need to rededicate themselves “to the principles upon which our nation was founded” and not face new threats, such as broadened searches, to their privacy. “In announcing a blanket rule authorizing such searches,” she wrote, “the majority disregards the high court’s decision in Knowles and chips away at one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by our federal Constitution.”

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