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Supreme Court Declines Deciding Whether Parking Violation Justifies Seizure of Vehicle

by Matt Clarke

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a Seventh Circuit decision permitting the seizure of a parked vehicle for a parking violation, permitting evidence developed during the seizure to be used against one of the vehicle’s passengers. This leaves the Seventh Circuit decision in force.

On a Milwaukee January evening with a wind chill of -20 degrees Fahrenheit, two patrol cars filled with officers of the Neighborhood Task Force Street Crimes Unit came upon an idling car parked in front of a liquor store. The driver had dashed into a store to make a purchase and had parked the car 7 to 8 feet from an unmarked crosswalk.

The since-disbanded task force had a mission to “look for smaller infractions and hope that possibly they may lead to bigger and better things.” Its officers thought the car might be parked too close to the crosswalk, a violation punishable by a $30 fine, so they surrounded it on foot and removed the occupants from the vehicle, then handcuffed them. One officer said that while passenger Randy Johnson was still in the car he had made a furtive movement like he was hiding something. An officer said he saw a gun on the floorboard and seized it. Johnson was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

At trial, Johnson tried unsuccessfully to suppress the gun as having been illegally seized. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed. Certiorari was sought on whether invasive police intrusions should become “a routine part of American life” in parking enforcement. The Supreme Court denied certiorari.

The road to police seizures being justified by parking violations was graded smooth about two decades ago in Whren v. United States when a unanimous Supreme Court upheld failure to use a turn signal as justification for a traffic stop. The Whren Court refused to consider whether police had pretextual motives for the stop.

A few years later, the road was fully paved in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista when the Supreme Court upheld the validity of an arrest for a seat-belt violation. In her dissent, then-Justice Sandra Day O’Conner noted the “recent debate over racial profiling” and argued that the Fourth Amendment required a reasonable and proportionate response to the charged offense.

It is disturbing that not even four justices of the current Supreme Court were interested in reviewing Johnson’s case. This is an indication that the police are now permitted to use the maximum intrusion for the most minimal of offenses. The Supreme Court’s got their back.


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