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Originally published Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 8:27 PM

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State Supreme Court imposes limits on vehicle searches

The right of police to search someone's car after they've been arrested was limited Thursday in an 8-1 decision by the Washington Supreme Court.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Washington Supreme Court has limited the ability of police to search someone's car after they've been taken into custody, further extending a long tradition of affording state residents more privacy protections than are guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling overturns the convictions of two men in unrelated cases who were stopped by police, after which officers found drugs during searches of their cars.

The justices, in an 8-1 vote on Thursday, held that police must obtain a warrant to search an arrested driver's car even if they believe it contains evidence of the crime for which the person was taken into custody.

The ruling extends protections not afforded under a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Arizona case that found searches in such cases permissible under the Fourth Amendment.

That case, Arizona v. Gant, said police must obtain a warrant to search a vehicle with two narrow exceptions: officer safety — they can conduct a limited search for weapons, for example — and when they reasonably believe the car contains evidence of the crime for which the driver was taken into custody.

Washington's justices found that the officer-safety exemption already exists under Article I, Section 7 of the state constitution, which contains protections against illegal search and seizure similar to those found in the Fourth Amendment.

But they said the search for evidence of the crime-of-arrest does not qualify as an acceptable warrantless search, and they rejected arguments of prosecutors from around the state who warned in pleadings that forcing officers to obtain warrants to search a car after every arrest will be time-consuming and have other impacts on law enforcement.

"These delays will only multiply if a warrant is required for every stop at 2 a.m. on a Friday night in which the officer concludes it is reasonable to believe there is evidence of the crime of arrest in the vehicle," wrote James Whisman, a senior deputy prosecutor with the King County Prosecutor's Office. "Scores of such arrests occur in any given jurisdiction in any 24-hour period."

Lila Silverstein, an attorney with the Washington Appellate Project and the attorney for Daniel Snapp, one of the men who was arrested, said that the justices were only following a long practice of extending additional privacy protections to Washington residents.

"This is not a new direction," she said. "It's terrific that our court holds these protections in such regard."

Nor is it unusual for the justices to interpret the state constitution separately from the U.S. document, she said.

While the U.S. Supreme Court only last year found that a warrant was needed to place a GPS tracking device on someone's car, the state has required warrants for years, Silverstein pointed out. Likewise, police in Washington need a warrant to go through someone's garbage or look through a hotel directory, while federal law allows police to do those things without a warrant, she said.

A Washington State Patrol trooper arrested Snapp in 2006 for having a faulty seat belt. An officer said Snapp made furtive movements that made the officer suspect he was hiding something.

A search of his car turned up a crack pipe, drugs and evidence of identity theft. Snapp, who was a wanted felon, was convicted of identity-theft charges. His attorneys said that the search was illegal and that evidence found in the car was not admissible.

Roger Wright, the other driver, was stopped by Seattle police in 2006 for driving without his lights on in an area police said was known for burglaries and car prowls. The officer smelled marijuana when he approached the car and arrested Wright, passing him off to another officer. A search of the car turned up marijuana, Ecstasy and $1,300 cash.

The justices reversed the convictions of both men and sent the cases back to the trial court.

The dissent, by Justice James Johnson, said Thursday's ruling was too limiting for police and marked yet another of several "changes in direction" the court has taken in this area over the past 20 years.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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