Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 6 (1996)

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Cite as: 517 U. S. 806 (1996)

Opinion of the Court


Petitioners contend that the standard they propose is consistent with our past cases' disapproval of police attempts to use valid bases of action against citizens as pretexts for pursuing other investigatory agendas. We are reminded that in Florida v. Wells, 495 U. S. 1, 4 (1990), we stated that "an inventory search[1] must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence"; that in Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U. S. 367, 372 (1987), in approving an inventory search, we apparently thought it significant that there had been "no showing that the police, who were following standardized procedures, acted in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation"; and that in New York v. Burger, 482 U. S. 691, 716-717, n. 27 (1987), we observed, in upholding the constitutionality of a warrantless administrative inspection,2 that the search did not appear to be "a 'pretext' for obtaining evidence of . . . violation of . . . penal laws." But only an undiscerning reader would regard these cases as endorsing the principle that ulterior motives can invalidate police conduct that is justifiable on the basis of probable cause to believe that a violation of law has occurred. In each case we were addressing the validity of a search conducted in the absence of probable cause. Our quoted statements simply explain that the exemption from the need for probable cause (and warrant), which is accorded to searches made for the purpose of inventory or administrative

1 An inventory search is the search of property lawfully seized and detained, in order to ensure that it is harmless, to secure valuable items (such as might be kept in a towed car), and to protect against false claims of loss or damage. See South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U. S. 364, 369 (1976).

2 An administrative inspection is the inspection of business premises conducted by authorities responsible for enforcing a pervasive regulatory scheme—for example, unannounced inspection of a mine for compliance with health and safety standards. See Donovan v. Dewey, 452 U. S. 594, 599-605 (1981).


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