Police get leeway in search of bus and train passengers

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

WASHINGTON -- In a decision that could aid the government's anti-terrorism efforts, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police can question passengers on buses and trains and search for evidence without informing them that they can refuse.

Officers routinely check buses and trains for drug couriers. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, they also have focused efforts on possible terrorists who could be using public transportation.

Police in Tallahassee, Fla., were within their rights to move up the aisle of a Greyhound bus, asking questions of each passenger and, in the case of two men wearing heavy clothing on a warm day, asking permission to search their luggage and bodies, the Supreme Court ruled, 6-3.

The officers found bricks of cocaine strapped to the men's legs, and they were later convicted on drug charges.

The question for the court was whether Christopher Drayton and Clifton Brown were coerced into cooperating with police, who did not tell them they had the right to refuse. The Constitution guarantees freedom from "unreasonable searches or seizures."

The men agreed to the search, and nothing about the fact that they were seated on a bus forced them to say yes, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.

"Police officers act in full accord with the law when they ask citizens for consent. It reinforces the rule of law for the citizen to advise the police of his or her wishes and for the police to act in reliance on that understanding. When this exchange takes place, it dispels inferences of coercion."

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.

Lawyers for the men argued that with two officers standing in the aisle and another posted by the front door, the men felt boxed into their seats and unable to either refuse to answer questions or get up and leave the bus.

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