In Whren v. United States, the United States Supreme Court held that a traffic stop is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if a police officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, even if the stop is a pretext for the investigation of a more serious offense. The Court affirmed the convictions of Michael A. Whren and James L. Brown, who had been arrested on federal drug charges after Washington, D.C., police stopped Brown for minor traffic infractions. The Court's unanimous opinion, delivered by Justice Scalia, brought an end to a long-running debate over the proper Fourth Amendment treatment of pretextual police conduct, and pretextual traffic stops in particular. The United States Courts of Appeals, state appellate courts, and various commentators were sharply divided over the question of whether pretextual stops violate the Fourth Amendment and, if so, what the test for identifying such unconstitutional conduct should be. Whren, however, was the first case in which the Supreme Court directly addressed the issue. This Note will analyze the Whren decision as the last word in the pretextual stop debate. This Note concludes that the holding of Whren is correct both because it is dictated by precedent and because there are insurmountable logical and practical barriers to a holding that pretextual stops violate the Fourth Amendment. Because only the Fourth Amendment issue was presented, however, the Court did not examine the other factors that make pretextual stops a real problem, and therefore failed to suggest any solutions.
Brian J. O'Donnell,
Whren v. United States: An Abrupt End to the Debate Over Pretextual Stops,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol49/iss1/7