Eau Claire (WQOW) - For the last 28 years, police officers have been able to search the vehicle of any suspect they take into custody. Now the rules have changed after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court this week and that has local police departments on notice.
The Supreme Court case stems from an incident that happened in Arizona. Police arrested a man for driving with a suspended license. When they later searched his car, they found cocaine. The man was eventually convicted on drug charges. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court because the search had nothing to do with officer safety or the reason the man was arrested. The high court says those are the two guidelines police need to search a vehicle after an arrest.
"The decision basically said that once you have the person in custody, in handcuffs, and in their squad car there really isn't any threat to the officer if there are weapons in the vehicle," said Lieutenant Jerry Staniszewski of the Eau Claire Police Department.
That means once a person is arrested, officers are unable to search someone's car unless there is probable cause.
"What's probable cause? It'd be very easy if we had a checklist: one, two, three, four. Oh those four things are there and you're good to go. Well, it doesn't work that way because every single case is different. One person's fair probability is another person's certainty is another person's complete hunch," said Eau Claire County District Attorney Rich White.
Under the old rule, an arrest was all it took to give police the right to search a car for anything unrelated to that arrest. For example, someone is pulled over for drunk driving, police then search the car and find drugs or a weapon. The Supreme Court ruling now prohibits police from making that kind of search unless there's clear evidence of drugs or weapons in the car. Essentially, the new law restricts an officer's hunch.
"We discovered a lot of crimes that we didn't know were occurring. Potentially, there's going to be contraband items in vehicles that we're not going to discover anymore because of this," said Lt. Staniszewski. "I would anticipate that we'll probably use the canine a little bit more often on those type of situations and maybe do a walk around the vehicle. We'll just have to adjust, use other tools, but obviously go by the guidelines that the court has sent out," he added.
The law says if drug dogs smell drugs, that's enough probable cause to search. Statutes still allow searches if if any drugs or weapons are in plain view of the officer or if the officer finds something illegal on the suspect during the arrest.