440 U.S. 648 (1979), 77-1571, Delaware v. Prouse

Docket Nº:No. 77-1571
Citation:440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660
Party Name:Delaware v. Prouse
Case Date:March 27, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 648

440 U.S. 648 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660

Delaware

v.

Prouse

No. 77-1571

United States Supreme Court

March 27, 1979

Argued January 17, 1979

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF DELAWARE

Syllabus

A patrolman in a police cruiser stopped an automobile occupied by respondent and seized marihuana in plain view on the car floor. Respondent was subsequently indicted for illegal possession of a controlled substance. At a hearing on respondent's motion to suppress the marihuana, the patrolman testified that, prior to stopping the vehicle, he had observed neither traffic or equipment violations nor any suspicious activity, and that he made the stop only in order to check the driver's license and the car's registration. The patrolman was not acting pursuant to any standards, guidelines, or procedures pertaining to document spot checks, promulgated by either his department or the State Attorney General. The trial court granted the motion to suppress, finding the stop and detention to have been wholly capricious, and therefore violative of the Fourth Amendment. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed.

Held:

1. This Court has jurisdiction in this case even though the Delaware Supreme Court held that the stop at issue not only violated the Federal Constitution but also was impermissible under the Delaware Constitution. That court's opinion shows that, even if the State Constitution would have provided an adequate basis for the judgment below, the court did not intend to rest its decision independently on the State Constitution, its holding instead depending upon its view of the reach of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 651-653.

2. Except where there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver's license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 653-663.

(a) Stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a "seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief. The permissibility of a particular law enforcement practice is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests. Pp. 653-655.

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(b) The State's interest in discretionary spot checks as a means of ensuring the safety of its roadways does not outweigh the resulting intrusion on the privacy and security of the persons detained. Given the physical and psychological intrusion visited upon the occupants of a vehicle by a random stop to check documents, cf. United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. 3. 873; United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, the marginal contribution to roadway safety possibly resulting from a system of spot checks cannot justify subjecting every occupant of every vehicle on the roads to a seizure at the unbridled discretion of law enforcement officials. Pp. 655-661.

(c) An 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. People are not shorn of all Fourth Amendment protection [99 S.Ct. 1394] when they step from their homes onto the public sidewalk; nor are they shorn of those interests when they step from the sidewalks into their automobiles. Pp. 662-663.

(d) The holding in this case does not preclude Delaware or other States from developing methods for spot checks that involve less intrusion or that do not involve the unconstrained exercise of discretion. Questioning of all oncoming traffic at roadblock-type stops is one possible alternative. P. 663.

382 A.2d 1359, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which POWELL, J., joined, post, p. 663. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 664.

Page 650

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question is whether it is an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to stop an automobile, being driven on a public highway, for the purpose of checking the driving license of the operator and the registration of the car, where there is neither probable cause to believe nor reasonable suspicion that the car is being driven contrary to the laws governing the operation of motor vehicles or that either the car or any of its occupants is subject to seizure or detention in connection with the violation of any other applicable law.

I

At 7:20 p.m. on November 30, 1976, a New Castle County, Del., patrolman in a police cruiser stopped the automobile occupied by respondent.1 The patrolman smelled marihuana smoke as he was walking toward the stopped vehicle, and he seized marihuana in plain view on the car floor. Respondent was subsequently indicted for illegal possession of a controlled substance. At a hearing on respondent's motion to suppress the marihuana seized as a result of the stop, the patrolman testified that, prior to stopping the vehicle, he had observed neither traffic or equipment violations nor any suspicious activity, and that he made the stop only in order to check the driver's license and registration. The patrolman was not acting pursuant to any standards, guidelines, or procedures pertaining to document spot checks, promulgated by either his department or the State Attorney General. Characterizing the stop as "routine," the patrolman explained, "I saw the car

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in the area and wasn't answering any complaints, so I decided to pull them off." App. A9. The trial court granted the motion to suppress, finding the stop and detention to have been wholly capricious, and therefore violative of the Fourth Amendment.

The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed, noting first that

[t]he issue of the legal validity of systematic, roadblock-type stops of a number of vehicles for license and vehicle registration check is not now before the Court,

382 A.2d 1359, 1362 (1978) (emphasis in original). The court held that

a random stop of a motorist in the absence of specific articulable facts which justify the stop by indicating a reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law has occurred is constitutionally impermissible and violative of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Id. at 1364. We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict between this decision, which is in accord with decisions in five other jurisdictions,2 and the contrary determination in six jurisdictions3 that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the kind of automobile stop that occurred here. 439 U.S. 816 (1978).

II

Because the Delaware Supreme Court held that the stop at issue not only violated the Federal Constitution but also

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was impermissible under Art. I, § 6, of the Delaware Constitution, it is urged that the judgment below was based on an independent and adequate state ground, and that we therefore have no jurisdiction in this case. Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.S. 207, 210 (1935). At least, it is suggested, the matter is sufficiently uncertain that we should remand for clarification as to the ground upon which the judgment rested. California v. Krivda, 409 U.S. 33, 35 (1972). Based on our reading of the opinion, however, we are satisfied that, even if the State Constitution would have provided an adequate basis for the judgment, the Delaware Supreme Court did not intend to rest its decision independently on the State Constitution, and that we have jurisdiction of this case.

As we understand the opinion below, Art I, § 6, of the Delaware Constitution will automatically be interpreted at least as broadly as the Fourth Amendment;4 that is, every police practice authoritatively determined to be contrary to the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments will, without further analysis, be held to be contrary to Art. I, § 6. This approach, which is consistent with previous opinions of the Delaware Supreme Court,5 was followed in this case. The court analyzed

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the various decisions interpreting the Federal Constitution, concluded that the Fourth Amendment foreclosed spot checks of automobiles, and summarily held that the State Constitution was therefore also infringed. This is one of those cases where,

at the very least, the [state] court felt compelled by what it understood to be federal constitutional considerations to construe . . . its own law in the manner it did.

Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co., 433 U.S. 562, 568 (1977). Had state law not been mentioned at all, there would be no question about our jurisdiction, even though the State Constitution [99 S.Ct. 1396] might have provided an independent and adequate state ground. Ibid. The same result should follow here, where the state constitutional holding depended upon the state court's view of the reach of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. If the state court misapprehended federal law, "[i]t should be freed to decide . . . these suits according to its own local law." Missouri ex rel. Southern R. Co. v. Mayfield, 340 U.S. 1, 5 (1950).

III

The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments are implicated in this case because stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a "seizure" within the meaning of those Amendments, even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting...

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