Whren v. United States Case Brief

Facts of the case

Whren and Brown were driving in a ‘high drug area.’ Some plainclothes officers, while patrolling the neighborhood in an unmarked vehicle, noticed Whren and Brown sitting in a truck at an intersection stop-sign for an usually long time. Suddenly, without signaling, Whren turned his truck and sped away. Observing this traffic violation, the officers stopped the truck. When they approached the vehicle, the officers saw Whren holding plastic bags of crack cocaine. Whren and Brown were arrested on federal drug charges. Before trial, they moved to suppress the evidence contending that the officers used the traffic violation as a pretext for stopping the truck because they lacked either reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop them on suspicion of drug dealing. The District Court denied the motion to suppress and convicted the petitioners. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Why is the case important?

A stopped vehicle attracted the attention of a vice officer. A subsequent chase and search revealed drugs.

Question

Whether the temporary detention of a motorist who the police have probable cause to believe has committed a civil traffic violation is inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures unless a reasonable officer would have been motivated to stop the car by a desire to enforce traffic law.

ANSWER

No. The petitioners’ argument was that a new standard should be imposed for such circumstances: “whether a police officer, acting reasonably, would have made the stop for the reason give.” The court cited extensive precedent that showed, regardless of the “pretext” of the officer’s action, an arrest “would not be rendered invalid” and that a “lawful postarrest search of the person would not be rendered invalid by the fact that it was not motivated by the officer-safety concern that justifies such searches.”

CONCLUSION

It was held that the Supreme Court would not replace the normal test under the Federal Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which was that the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable if the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.  The Court rejected the  alternative standard suggested by defendants, which would depend on whether a police officer, acting reasonably, would have made the automobile stop for the reason given. Thus, the District Court’s probable-cause finding, which Whren and Brown accepted, rendered the stop of the their truck reasonable under the Fourth Amendment , the evidence thereby discovered was admissible, and the Court of Appeals’ upholding of the Whren and Brown’s convictions was correct.

  • Advocates: James A. Feldman on behalf of the Respondent Lisa Burget Wright on behalf of the Petitioners
  • Petitioner: Whren
  • Respondent: United States
  • DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
  • Location: –
Citation: 517 US 806 (1996)
Argued: Apr 17, 1996
Decided: Jun 10, 1996
Whren v. United States Case Brief