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Delaware v. Prouse

Facts

An officer stopped a vehicle occupied by the defendant. The officer testified that, prior to the stop, he had observed neither traffic or equipment violations, nor any other suspicious activity. Instead, he made the stop only to check the driver’s license and the vehicle’s registration documents. In making the stop, the officer was not acting pursuant to any standards, guidelines, or procedures promulgated by either his department or the State Attorney General. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officer smelled marijuana. He later seized marijuana in plain view on the floor of the car.

Issue

Whether the officer’s stop of the vehicle without reasonable suspicion violated of the Fourth Amendment?

Held

Yes. The officer may not stop a vehicle without establishing that an articulable reason exists to suspect that criminal activity is afoot.

Discussion

While the State has an interest in ensuring the safety of its roadways, an individual still retains a reasonable expectation of privacy in a vehicle, despite significant governmental regulation of vehicles. If an individual was subjected to unrestricted governmental intrusion every time he or she entered a vehicle, the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures would be severely undermined. Instead, “except in those situations in which 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 vehicle are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

Citation

440 U.S. 648, 99 S. Ct. 1391 (1979)

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