Whren v. United States

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Whren v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued April 17, 1996
Decided June 10, 1996
Full case nameMichael A. Whren and James L. Brown, Petitioners, v. United States
Citations517 U.S. 806 (more)
116 S. Ct. 1769; 135 L. Ed. 2d 89; 1996 U.S. LEXIS 3720
Case history
PriorConviction affirmed, United States v. Whren, 53 F.3d 371 (D.C. Cir. 1995); cert. granted, 516 U.S. 1036 (1996).
SubsequentConviction affirmed on remand, United States v. Whren, 111 F.3d 956 (D.C. Cir. 1997); cert. denied, 522 U.S. 1119 (1998).
Any traffic offense committed by a driver is a legitimate legal basis for a traffic stop.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Case opinion
MajorityScalia, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. IV

Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), 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]

In an opinion authored by Antonin Scalia, the court held that a search and seizure is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment in cases where the police officers have a "reasonable suspicion" that a traffic violation has occurred. The personal, or subjective, motives of an officer are not a factor in the Court's Fourth Amendment analysis of whether the cause for a stop is sufficient. The standard for reasonable suspicion is purely an objective one.[3][1]

A main concern with this case is that police conducting traffic stops may profile based on race. It also interprets the Fourth Amendment. Both petitioners believe that the traffic stop did not warrant a search of their vehicle and their arrest.[4] Similar to the complaints and outrage about New York City's Stop and Frisk program, some believe that the ruling in Whren v. United States will lead to an increase in racial profiling towards young African American males.[5]


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

Meanwhile, two officers dressed in plainclothes were patrolling the area in an unmarked car. They were members of the District of Columbia's Vice Squad and were assigned to the area; they noticed the suspicious vehicle pulled over at a stop sign for about 20 seconds. The passenger was distracting the driver. As the officers approached the vehicle, the vehicle turned at an "unreasonable" speed without using their turning signal. For the traffic violation, the officers pulled over Whren and Brown.

Upon approaching the car, the officer noticed two plastic bags of crack cocaine in Whren's hands. Marijuana laced with PCP was also found in plain sight. The two were charged with possession with the intent to distribute around 50 g of crack cocaine. Also, Whren and Brown were pulled over in a school zone, which resulted in harsher federal drug violation sentences.[4]

Lower courts[edit]

Before trial, counsel for the defense moved to suppress the drug evidence by claiming 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 only 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.[6]

The motion to suppress was denied by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and both defendants were sentenced to 14 years. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the previous ruling.[7]


"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."[4] In other words, did the officers breach the Fourth Amendment with an illegal search and seizure?


The court came to a unanimous decision, written by Justice Scalia:

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.[4]

If officers have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred, 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. 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 anxiety, confusion, and haste for Whren and Brown. There was nothing particularly harmful about the search and seizure.[1]

Scalia noted previous cases involving police stops. Using Delaware v. Prouse (1979) and other cases, Scalia claimed that because there was a traffic violation, the search and seizure did not violate constitutional rights: "such stops could be made regardless of an officer's true intentions."[4]

The Court agreed that race has no place in enforcement by pointing to the Equal Protection Clause. It claimed that as long as there was some probable cause of a traffic violation, the officer has the right to pull over a vehicle.[3]

Racial profiling[edit]

A major racial issue in this case is the concern surrounding pretext stops. It is believed that profiling a potential suspect gets rid of the need for wrongdoing, violating 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 had controversial implications. David Harris argues that pretextual traffic stops are "deepening distrust and cynicism by African Americans about police and the entire criminal Justice System."[8]

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. The study did not say how much more or less likely it was for African Americans to be found in possession of contraband during such searches.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "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 Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Public domain This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  4. ^ a b c d e "SAGE Reference - Whren v. United States". sk.sagepub.com. Retrieved 2017-03-16.
  5. ^ Olsen, Gunar (2016-01-25). "How the Supreme Court Authorized Racial Profiling". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2019-03-06.
  6. ^ http://www.sdflaw.com/files/The_Law_of_Pretext_Stops_Since_Whren_v_United_States.pdf
  7. ^ United States v. Whren, 53 F.3d 371 (D.C. Cir. 1995).
  8. ^ M. K. Darmer, Teaching Whren to White Kids, 15 Mich. J. Race & L. 109 (2009).

External links[edit]