|New York v. Class
[ O'Connor ]
[ Powell ]
[ Brennan ]
[ White ]
New York v. Class
CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK
JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE STEVENS join, concurring in part and dissenting in part.
I agree that the decision of the New York Court of Appeals does not rest on an adequate and independent state ground, see Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1043 (1983), and therefore join Part II of the Court's opinion. I also agree that the police conducted a search of respondent's vehicle to inspect the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Ante at 114-115. However, I disagree that this search was constitutionally permissible, and to that extent respectfully dissent.
The facts bear repetition. Officers Meyer and McNamee pulled respondent over after observing him commit minor traffic violations. Respondent emerged from his car, closed the door, and joined Officer Meyer at the rear of the vehicle. Respondent gave Officer Meyer his car registration certificate and proof of insurance, but did not have a driver's license. Meanwhile, without first examining the documents, and unaware that respondent had no driver's license, Officer McNamee opened the door of the car to look for the VIN on the doorjamb and, not finding it there, reached inside to remove papers obstructing his view of the VIN on the dashboard. While doing so, McNamee saw a gun handle protruding from underneath the driver's seat. Respondent was arrested, and eventually convicted, for criminal possession [p123] of a weapon. He was issued summonses for his traffic violations.
McNamee conducted the search even though
[i]t is undisputed that the police officers had no reason to suspect that respondent's car was stolen, that it contained contraband, or that respondent had committed an offense other than the traffic violations.
Ante at 108.
The Fourth Amendment guarantees the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."
This fundamental right is preserved by a requirement that searches be conducted pursuant to a warrant issued by an independent judicial officer.
California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390 (1985). While we have found no Fourth Amendment violation in certain warrantless police searches of cars, see, e.g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), this narrow exception "applies only to searches of vehicles that are supported by probable cause." United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 809 (1982).
Officer McNamee's search of respondent's car was clearly without probable cause, and was therefore patently unconstitutional. The Court's contrary holding rests not on any reasoning or logic grounded in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, but rather on a strained and irrelevant analysis. To substitute for the absence of probable cause, the Court struggles to balance "the governmental interest in highway safety served by obtaining the VIN" and a "concern for the officers' safety" against the "nature and quality" of the intrusion that took place. Ante at 118. Once again, the Court "takes a long step . . . toward ‘balancing' into oblivion the protections the Fourth Amendment affords." Michigan v. Long, supra, at 1065 (BRENNAN, J., dissenting). The police had no justification whatever, let alone probable cause, to search for the [p124] VIN, and therefore no amount of "balancing" can make the search of respondent's car constitutional.
The Court says much about the "important role played by the VIN in the pervasive governmental regulation of the automobile," and holds that respondent had no "reasonable expectation of privacy in the VIN." Ante at 114. This aspect of the Court's analysis is particularly baffling. Of course, the VIN plays a significant part in federal and state schemes for regulating automobiles, and federal regulations require vehicle manufacturers to install VINs that may be read from outside the passenger compartment. See 49 CFR § 571.115 (S4.6) (1984). However, even assuming that respondent had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the VIN, why is this relevant to the question we decide? Officer McNamee did not look for the VIN from outside of respondent's vehicle, but searched the car without respondent's consent in order to locate the VIN. By focusing on the object of the search -- the VIN -- the Court misses the issue we must decide: whether an interior search of the car to discover that object was constitutional. Regardless of whether he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the VIN, respondent clearly retained a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the area searched by the police -- the car's interior. As the court below noted,
[t]he fact that certain information must be kept, or that it may be of a public nature, does not automatically sanction police intrusion into private space in order to obtain it.
63 N.Y.2d 491, 495, 472 N.E.2d 1009, 1011 (1984); cf. id. at 496-497, 472 N.E.2d at 1012-1013 (noting that state law only requires drivers to furnish police with vehicle identification).
Because vehicles are mobile and subject to pervasive government regulation, an individual's justifiable expectation of privacy in a vehicle is less than in his home. California v. [475 U.S. 125] Carney, supra. This is why the Court has held that warrantless searches of cars may sometimes not violate the Fourth Amendment, but only if the searches are supported by probable cause. See, e.g., Carroll v. United States, supra; United States v. Ross, supra. For
[a]n individual operating or traveling in an automobile does not lose all reasonable expectation of privacy simply because the automobile and its use are subject to government regulation.
Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 662 (1979); see also Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266, 269 (1973) ("[T]he Carroll doctrine does not declare a field day for the police in searching automobiles"). Because the Fourth Amendment constrains the State's authority to search automobiles under the guise of "regulation," the fact that the Government uses the VIN as part of its scheme for regulating automobiles is insufficient to justify a search of the passenger compartment to retrieve such information. Rather, as is ordinarily the case with any car search, a VIN search must be supported by probable cause. See Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, supra, at 269 ("Automobile or no automobile, there must be probable cause for the search"). "[T]o eliminate any requirement that an officer be able to explain the reasons for his actions . . . leaves police discretion utterly without limits." Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 122 (1977) (STEVENS, J., dissenting). In this case, the police clearly lacked probable cause to search for the VIN.
The Court suggests that respondent's traffic infractions provided the requisite probable cause, this on the ground that there was "probable cause focusing suspicion on the individual affected by the search." Ante at 118. This analysis makes a mockery of the Fourth Amendment. There can be no question that respondent's traffic offenses gave the police probable cause to stop the car and to demand some form of vehicle identification. Delaware v. Prouse, supra, at 663. Too, this sort of routine traffic stop generally gives police an opportunity to inspect the VIN through the car windshield. [p126] But Fourth Amendment protections evaporate if this supplies the requisite probable cause to search for a VIN not visible from the exterior of the car. Plainly the search of the interior for the VIN was unnecessary, since respondent had supplied his car registration certificate, and there is no suggestion that it was inadequate. [n1]
The Court supplies not an iota of reasoning to support the holding that respondent's traffic infractions gave the police probable cause to search for the VIN. The Court is content simply to conclude that "the governmental interest in highway safety served by obtaining the VIN is of the first order." Ante at 118. Although I agree that the government has a strong interest in promoting highway safety, see Delaware v. Prouse, supra, at 658, I fail to see just how the VIN search conducted here advanced that interest. Despite the Court's lengthy exposition on the variety of safety-related purposes served by the VIN, [n2] respondent's car was not searched to further any of the identified interests. If the officers intended to identify what they considered to be an "unsafe" vehicle, that could have been done without searching respondent's car. Thus, the mere fact that the State utilizes the VIN in conjunction with regulations designed to promote [p127] highway safety does not give the police a reason to search for such information every time a motorist violates a traffic law. [n3] Absent some reason to search for the VIN, the government's admittedly strong interest in promoting highway safety cannot validate the intrusion resulting from the search of respondent's vehicle.
The Court, relying on Pennsylvania v. Mimms, supra, and Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981), next attempts to support its holding on the ground that,
[i]n light of the danger to the officers' safety [that would be] presented by returning respondent immediately to his car [to uncover the VIN,] the search to obtain the VIN was not prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.
Ante at 116. Neither cited decision supports this argument.
In Summers, police detained the occupant of a home being searched pursuant to a valid warrant. The Court held that this seizure was constitutional because it served several important law enforcement interests, including officer safety, and because the search warrant provided a reasonable basis for the police to determine that the occupant was engaged in criminal activity, and should therefore be detained. 452 U.S. at 702-704. By contrast, here there was no reason for the officers to search the car to inspect the VIN. The officers knew only that respondent had committed minor traffic violations, and while this may have given them an opportunity to inspect the VIN, it did not provide a reason to search the interior of the car for it.
In Mimms, police stopped an automobile for a traffic infraction, and ordered the driver to step outside the vehicle. As the driver emerged, the officers noticed a large bulge [p128] under his jacket, and after frisking him, discovered a loaded revolver. The Court held that, because such actions protected officer safety, the police could legitimately order a driver out of his car when they made a lawful traffic stop. Unlike the situation in Mimms, the intrusion in this case -- the search of respondent's vehicle -- did not directly serve officer safety. Nevertheless, the Court finds that
[t]o have returned respondent immediately to the automobile [to clear the papers on the dashboard obscuring the VIN] would have placed the officers in the same situation that the holding in Mimms allows officers to avoid.
Ante at 116. Again, the Court forgets that the police, with no reason to search the interior, had no reason to return respondent to his car. Thus, the State's interest in protecting officer safety cannot validate the search.
Of course, if the officers had reasonable grounds to suspect that the traffic stop presented a threat to their safety, they would have been authorized to search respondent's vehicle for weapons. See Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. at 1051. However, neither officer ever suggested that the situation posed any danger, and the court below specifically found that the facts "reveal no reason for the officer[s] . . . to act to protect [their] own safety." 63 N.Y.2d at 496, 472 N.E.2d at 1012. In the absence of even the slightest suspicion of danger, the search of respondent's car cannot be justified on grounds of officer safety.
Finally, the Court finds that "[t]he ‘critical' issue of the intrusiveness of the Government's action . . . also here weighs in favor of allowing the search." Ante at 118. The Court's effort to minimize the extent of the intrusion, see ante at 118-119, won't wash. Officer McNamee clearly searched respondent's car by opening the door and reaching into the passenger compartment to remove papers from the dashboard. Even if he did not engage in a full-scale excavation, this search exposed areas of the passenger compartment not visible [p129] from outside the vehicle.
The narrow intrusions involved in [Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), and its progeny] were judged by a balancing test, rather than by the general principle that Fourth Amendment seizures must be supported by the "long-prevailing standards" of probable cause . . . only because these intrusions fell far short of the kind of intrusion associated with an arrest.
Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 212 (1979). That the search conducted here was substantially more intrusive than an ordinary traffic stop starkly exposes the impropriety of the Court's strained effort to sanction McNamee's patently illegal search by the balancing approach. In United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 721 (1983), JUSTICE BLACKMUN too noted his concern over the "emerging tendency on the part of the Court to convert the Terry decision into a general statement that the Fourth Amendment requires only that any seizure be reasonable." Cf. 462 U.S. at 718 (BRENNAN,J., concurring in result); Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 363 (1983) (BRENNAN, J., concurring); Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 509 (1983) (BRENNAN, J., concurring in result). [n4]
In any event, even if there had been only a limited search here that justified the Court in balancing the extent of the intrusion against the importance of the governmental interests allegedly served, this alone cannot legalize the search of respondent's car. In situations where the Court has approved of very limited intrusions on less than probable cause, the Court has always required that
the police officer . . . be [p130] able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.
Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968); see Michigan v. Long, supra, at 1049 (police must have reasonable belief that suspect is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons to search areas of passenger compartment where weapons may be placed or hidden); Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. at 663 (police must have reasonable suspicion that motorist is unlicensed, that car is unregistered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure, to stop automobile and detain driver); United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 881-882 (1975) (police must have reasonable suspicion that vehicle contains illegal aliens in order to stop the car and question occupants about citizenship). In this case, respondent's traffic infractions did not give the police a reason to search for the VIN, and the police offered no other justification that would reasonably warrant such an intrusion.
In sum, the Court's decision today is still another of its steps on the road to evisceration of the protections of the Fourth Amendment. The Court's willingness to sanction a car search that the police had no probable cause to conduct highlights this trend. However, I find the Court's holding particularly disturbing because none of the factors the Court relies upon -- the lack of reasonable expectation of privacy in the VIN, the officers' observing respondent commit minor traffic violations, the government's interest both in promoting highway safety and in shielding officers from danger, and the allegedly limited nature of the search that took place -- gave the police any reason to search for the VIN. The Court once again disregards the admonition of Justice Jackson:
[Fourth Amendment rights] are not mere second-class rights, but belong in the catalog of indispensable freedoms. Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the [p131] individual, and putting terror in every heart. Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government.
1. Indeed, the facts of this case belie any suggestion that the VIN search was needed positively to identify respondent's vehicle. Officer McNamee did not wait to see respondent's vehicle registration certificate before he started to search respondent's car, and did not record the VIN he found in order to compare it with other identifying documents.
2. The Court notes that "[t]he ease with which the VIN allows identification of a particular vehicle assists the various levels of government in many ways." Ante at 111. As examples, the Court explains that "the VIN improves the efficacy of recall campaigns," "assists researchers in determining the risks of driving various makes and models of automobiles," helps to "reduc[e] the number of those injured in accidents who go uncompensated for lack of insurance," ensures "that automobile operators are driving safe vehicles," and "[b]y making automobile theft more difficult . . . , safeguards not only property but also life and limb." Ibid.
3. By analogy, had respondent emerged from his car without his vehicle registration certificate or driver's license, I do not read the Court's opinion to hold that the police could have searched the passenger compartment in order to locate these documents, even though they also play important roles in the State's regulation of automobiles.
4. "There are important reasons why balancing inquiries should not be conducted except in the most limited circumstances." United States v. Place, 462 U.S. at 718 (BRENNAN, J., concurring in result).
[T]he protections intended by the Framers could all too easily disappear in the consideration and balancing of the multifarious circumstances presented by different cases.
Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 213 (1979). As a general rule,
the Framers of the [Fourth] Amendment balanced the interests involved and decided that a seizure is reasonable only if supported by a judicial warrant based on probable cause.
United States v. Place, supra, at 722 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring in judgment).
5. JUSTICE POWELL, in a concurring opinion joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, would find that,
[w]here the VIN is not visible from outside the vehicle or voluntarily disclosed by the driver, the officer may enter the vehicle to the extent necessary to read the VIN.