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Can a police officer search a person’s criminal record during a traffic stop under the 4th Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable intrusion and promises that citizens will not have their “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” 


Carlisle v. Kentucky asks the question of whether courts can adopt a categorical rule allowing law enforcement to prolong every traffic stop by performing a criminal records check, or on the other hand, whether the Fourth Amendment requires an individualized, case-by-case approach that allows checks only when the government offers some evidence that the check related to the officer’s safety. The circuits are split concerning this issue.  This case is current pending a petition for certiorari before the Untied States Supreme Court.  


Five courts allow law enforcement to perform a criminal record check in every traffic stop in theory and agree that these checks are inherent to officer safety. On the other hand, two courts have adopted a case-by-case basis for officers searching a criminal record. These courts adopt the approach where the court will evaluate the specific circumstances of the particular stop to determine whether the officer’s safety was so at the risk that the search of criminal records was appropriate. 


What happened in this case? 


In the middle of the afternoon, Officer Powers stopped Christopher Hughes and passenger Rodney Carlisle. The officer told the pair that he stopped them because the truck’s tinted taillights violated the statute. Twice during the exchange, Officer Powers muted his microphone. The officer then began to question Hughes about his criminal history. Hughes was truthful and told the officer that he had been arrested twice for possession of drug paraphrenia almost twenty years before. Officer Powers told his partner that the driver was “shady” and decided to investigate. He used Hughes’s license and Carlisle’s identification card to see if they had any other prior convictions. He wanted to search the car and needed a reason why. Hugh’s license ended up being suspended, and the Officer searched the vehicle. Carlisle, who is Black, was searched and patted down for significantly longer than Hughes, who is white. The officers found used needles, cell phones, a scale, and drug residue during the search. Carlisle was handcuffed and searched, and Hughes sat unrestrained. The officer made Carlisle strip down. Carlisle was charged with three counts of first-degree drug trafficking and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. 


Circuits are split on this issue. Five courts have held that a police officer is entitled to conduct a criminal history check during every traffic stop, regardless of the reason. This is a dangerous rule because it can turn any innocent traffic stop into a criminal investigation. This lenient rule also welcomes the officer to profile based on race or baseless suspicion. 


The minority view held by two courts is that a police officer is not entitled to conduct a computerized criminal history check during a traffic stop unless there is evidence that the check advances officer safety. This approach is much like “probable cause.” It is vague and can be satisfied by pretty much anything the officer says. However, it is a higher standard than a completely baseless search like the majority of courts hold. 


The Supreme Court should grant cert and hear this case. This case presents a far too common situation of police officers abusing their power to search for more than what is warranted. This search, arrest, and grossly long sentencing is racially discriminatory and unnecessary for what should have been a routine traffic stop for a taillight. 

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