Whren v. United States

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Whren v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 17, 1996
Decided June 10, 1996
Full case name Michael A. Whren and James L. Brown, Petitioners, v. United States
Citations 517 U.S. 806 (more)
116 S.Ct. 1769; 135 L.Ed.2d 89
Prior history Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
Subsequent history None
Any traffic offense committed by a driver is a legitimate legal basis for a traffic stop. Trial court and D.C. Circuit court affirmed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Scalia, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. IV

Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996),[1] was a unanimous United States Supreme Court decision[1] that "declared that any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop."[2]

Fully known as Michael A. Whren and James L. Brown, Petitioners, v. United States, the case's Supreme Court syllabus states that the court held that "the temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective." In other words, it does not matter if the traffic stop was a set up for a drug bust, so long as there was independent justification for the stop.

A main concern with this case is how the police interact with citizens that can also be seen as racial profiling and how a citizen is or is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Both petitioners believe that the traffic stop did not warrant a search of their vehicle and their arrest.[3] Similar to the complaints and outrage towards New York City’s Stop and Frisk program, many deliberate that the ruling in Whren v. United States will lead to an increase in racial profiling towards young African American males.


The Facts of the Case[edit]

On June 10, 1993, Michael Whren and James L. Brown were driving around Washington D.C. in an SUV. Brown was the driver while Michael Whren sat in the passenger seat. The area they were driving in was considered a “high drug area”.

Meanwhile, two officers dressed in plainclothes were patrolling the area in an unmarked car. These two officers were members of the District of Columbia’s Vice Squad and were assigned to the area. It is here when the officer’s notice the suspicious vehicle. They notice Whren’s and Brown’s vehicle pulled over at a stop sign for about 20 seconds. The passenger is distracting the driver. As the officers approached the vehicle, the vehicle turned at an “unreasonable” speed without using their turning signal. For this traffic violation, the officer’s pulled over Whren and Brown.

Upon approaching the car, the officer noticed two plastic bags of crack cocaine in Mr. Whren’s hands. Marijuana laced with PCP was also found in plain sight. They were charged with possession with the intent to distribute around 50 grams of crack cocaine. On top of this, Whren and Brown were pulled over in a school zone which resulted in a harsher federal drug violation sentences.[3]

Lower Courts[edit]

Before trial, counsel for the defense moved to suppress the drug evidence. They argued that the traffic stop was only a pretext to investigate possible drug crimes, without probable cause. In other words, the officers used common traffic violations as a means to investigate other criminal activity to make an arrest. They tried to form the argument that this arrest was a breach of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.[2]

The motion to suppress was denied by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and both defendants were convicted to fourteen year sentences. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the previous ruling.

Case (Supreme Court)[edit]

The ruling on the case was given on June 10, 1996.

The Question[edit]

"In this case we decide 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 the traffic laws." [3] In other words, did the officers breach the Fourth Amendment with an illegal search and seizure.


The court came to a unanimous decision ruling that:

The temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.[3]

This states that if an officer has a reasonable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred that they are allowed to stop a vehicle. Because the petitioners sped away at an “unreasonable” speed the officers were given reasonable cause to stop the vehicle. A traffic violation occurred which made the following search and seizure lawful. This shows that the officers did not ignore the danger of a pretextual stop but acted on a crime.[1]

The court also rejected the petitioners claim that the government’s interest in traffic safety led to Whren’s and Brown’s anxiety, confusion, and haste. This was shot down because there was nothing particularly harmful about the search and seizure.[1]

Majority Opinion[edit]

The Majority Opinion of the court was delivered by Justice Scalia. Scalia drew off previous cases involving police stops. Using Delaware v. Prouse and other cases, Scalia makes the claim that because there was a traffic violation the search and seizure did not violate the Constitutional right's of a citizen. Scalia writes that “such stops could be made regardless of an officer’s true intentions.” [3]

The Court did agree that race has no place in enforcement by pointing to the Equal Protection Clause. Claiming that as long as there was some probable cause of a traffic violation, then the officer has the right to pull a vehicle over.[4]

The Social Impact of Whren v. United States[edit]

In the early 1990s, Washington D.C. experienced a vast problem with drug violations, which spiked in June 1993 when 10 homicides occurred in 36 hours. This was also the same month Whren and Brown were arrested. Complaints arose about whether Whren and Brown, two young African American males, were targeted by the police. In retrospect, the case becomes even more puzzling with both officers facing later legal trouble.[3]

Racial Profiling[edit]

A major racial issue in this case is the concern surrounding pretext stops. It is believed that by profiling a potential suspect that it gets rid of the need for wrongdoing. This would violate the Equal Protections Clause. In 1999, United States v. Armstrong shed further light on this issue. It showed that all arrests for crack cocaine in Washington D.C. were African Americans.

Whren v. United States created dangerous implications. It allowed for an unlawful pull over under the Equal Protection Clause to be remedied by a legal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to convict someone of a greater crime. David Harris argues that these pretextual traffic stops are “deepening distrust and cynicism by African Americans about police and the entire criminal Justice System.”[5]

Data shows that racial profiling saturates police practice. Examining Los Angeles shows this. In 2004, it was found that African Americans who are pulled over are 76% more likely to be searched compared to White citizens. Whren v United States further grows the sentiment that the police are an oppressive force towards African Americans.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Whren v. United States | The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law". oyez.org. Retrieved 2014-04-17. 
  2. ^ "HR 118 Continued...". civilliberties.org. Retrieved 2014-04-17. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "SAGE Reference - Whren v. United States". sk.sagepub.com. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  4. ^ "Whren v. United States 517 U.S. 806 (1996)". Justia Law. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 
  5. ^ a b "Redirecting...". heinonline.org. Retrieved 2017-03-16. 

External links[edit]