Pretext Searches

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

A “pretext” search is a kind of vehicle search that has attracted much attention and controversy. In simple terms, it is a search where law enforcement stops a vehicle for a minor traffic violation, but the actual intent is to investigate a more serious crime they suspect is happening (Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 1996).

Legal Background

In the Whren case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that as long as the police have a valid reason to stop the vehicle—like a traffic violation—it doesn’t matter if they have other motives for the stop. The Court said that the Constitution is concerned with the actions of the police, not their underlying motives.

Whren v. United States

Facts of the Case

In June 1993, plainclothes vice-squad officers of the District of Columbia police were patrolling a “high drug area.” There, they observed a truck driven by Michael Whren waiting at a stop sign for an unusually long time. The truck then turned suddenly without signaling and sped off at an “unreasonable” speed.

The officers stopped the vehicle for the traffic violations. Approaching the truck, they saw two large plastic bags of what appeared to be crack cocaine in Whren’s hands. Whren and his passenger, James Brown, were arrested.

At trial, Whren and Brown moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the stop had been pretextual, meaning the officers used the traffic violations as an excuse to investigate suspected drug crimes.

Findings and Ruling

The District Court denied the motion to suppress, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The defendants then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the lower courts’ decisions. They held that as long as officers have a reasonable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred, they may stop any vehicle. In other words, any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop, regardless of the officer’s subjective state of mind.


The Supreme Court’s rationale relied heavily on the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment’s concern with “reasonableness” allows certain actions to be taken in certain circumstances, whatever the subjective intent.

The Court stated that subjectivity does not invalidate behavior that is objectively justifiable under the Fourth Amendment. This means the actual motivations of the police officers—who admitted they would not have stopped the truck if they hadn’t been suspicious—do not make an otherwise lawful stop unlawful.

The Court acknowledged that this allows for the possibility of racial profiling but stated that the constitutional basis of the traffic stop is not the right place to combat this social problem.

Concerns and Controversies

While legally sound, pretext searches have raised concerns about racial profiling. Critics argue that this practice can lead to unequal enforcement of the law, with people of certain races or backgrounds being stopped more frequently. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has maintained that any potential issues of racial bias are separate from the constitutionality of pretext stops.


Pretext searches are a controversial but legal aspect of procedural law. They occur when law enforcement stops a vehicle for a minor violation with the actual intention of investigating a more serious crime. While the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of such searches, they continue to raise concerns about the potential for racial bias and unequal enforcement of the law.

Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/17/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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