Whren v United States

              This incident happened on 10th of June, 1993. Michael Whren and James Brown were driving around the streets of Washington D.C. when the arrest was executed. James Brown was the one driving while Michael Whren sat on the passenger’s seat. Two police officers who were on plain clothes and driving in unmarked car noticed a suspicious vehicle and decided to trail them. The officers were attached to District of Columbia’s Vice Squad and had been assigned the duty of patrolling the area. The area was under the police radar and it had been classified as a ‘high drug area’. These police officers noticed that Whren and Brown pulled over their car at a stop sign for around 20 seconds. At this point the passenger was seen distracting the driver prompting the officers to approach them. When the two noticed they were being trailed, they turned their vehicle at an unreasonable speed without indicating the turning signal. The squad then pulled over Whren and Brown for this traffic violation. While approaching the car they saw two plastic bags containing crack cocaine in Whren’s hands. They also recovered Marijuana from the car. The two were charged with possession and intention to distribute crack cocaine weighing around 50 grams. Being pulled over at around school zone the two faced harsher federal drug violation charges. 

           From this case, there are several laws which had been violated ranging from traffic offences to federal and state drug violations. There was also a constitution petition arising from this matter. Counsels for the suspects wanted a constitutional interpretation to ascertain whether the traffic stop which occasioned a temporary detention was justified. The legal question here was whether a police officer can stop a suspicious car without a justifiable reason to do so. Did the officers act in line with Fourth amendment of the United States Constitution which prohibited unreasonable seizures? In other context, did the officers acted unconstitutionally by carrying out an illegal search and seizure contrary to the Fourth Amendment. 

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          On the drug policy, the two violated a number of federal and state legislations. One of these legislations is the Federal Controlled Substances Act which was passed by the Congress in 1970. Based on schedules, drugs are classified for various purposes. Most restrictions are outlined in Schedule I where most drugs are listed and their processions are outlawed. These drugs include Marijuana, LSD and Heroin. The Act only authorizes processions of these drugs for purposes of approved federal researches. This legislation provided for various severe punishments not only for illegal use of Marijuana but also for procession, trafficking and distribution offenses. Other legislation which regulated the use of stimulants at that time were The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the Anti Drug abuse Act of 1986 and Anti Drug abuse amendment Act which was enacted in 1988.  The Controlled Substance Act provided for a series of punishments for drug related crimes depending on the degree of the offence. For a third felony offence involving a high octane crime, the Act provided a mandatory life sentence without mercy considerations or release.  Being caught with procession of 50 gram of Cocaine attracts a fine of $ 4-10 million or a jail term of ten years. 100kg or more of Marijuana attracts of fine of $ 4-10 million or 10 years of life imprisonment. 

The following punishments are pegged to violations of traffic related offences in the United States;

  1. Fines depending on the intensity of the offence
  2. Seizure of the driving license
  3. Traffic schools
  4. Suspension for driving
  5. Surge in insurance premiums

          The above punishments are provided for in federal laws and some other states legislation. 

Being a federal system, the United States has central government and other individual governments at states level. Each state government has its own court system which derives its powers from the United States of America Constitution. The central government also has its own courts referred to as federal courts. These courts have their own original jurisdictions, with some having limited jurisdictions based on their geographic settings and subject matter. Article 3 of the United States Constitution establishes the Supreme Court and empowers the Congress to create other federal courts and cap their jurisdictions. The other two courts which fall under the classification of federal courts are District courts which try both civil and criminal matters at first instances (Howard, 2014). The second in hierarchy is the United States Court of Appeals which acts as immediate federal appellate courts.  

          This case involved federal drug charges hence it was first tried at Columbia Federal court. At this stage the suspects challenged the legality of the stop claiming that the officers had a predetermined intention to charge them on drug related offences. Their counsels argued that the stop was used as a pretext to impose drug related crimes on their clients. To be more precise, the suspects meant that the officers used ordinary traffic violations claims to arrest and investigate them. They urged the court to order the officers actions illegal under the Fourth amendment of the United Constitution.  The Columbia District Court denied the motion to suppress the charges and the defendants were convicted for 14 years in prison. The defendants later proceeded to the United States Court of appeal for the District of Columbia. The appellate court upheld the Federal District Court ruling reaffirming that the police officers acted within federal standard procedures.  It is at the Supreme Court in which this matter was exhausted.  The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the United States and its decision remains constitutionally unchallenged. This case rose from the lower courts up to the highest court of the land following the due procedures spelt out in federal laws. The charges in this case involved drug related criminal activities hence the trial at Federal courts.  The United States Federal Court for District of Columbian acted as the court of original jurisdiction in this matter because the incident happened in Washington D.C. 

         The court arrived at a unanimous decision ruling that,

“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.” (Fish, 2015).

            This means that a police officer is permitted by law to stop any vehicle on the road if he has reasonable cause to believe that the driver has violated a traffic law. The statement of facts state that Whren’s car sped off at an unreasonable speed without indicating the signal. This is a traffic violation and the officers were justified to stop it for further actions. The court quashed the petitioner’s claim that that the governments campaign to advocate for road safety led to Whren and Brown’s anxiety and undeserved suffering. The court saw that there was nothing harmful with the seizure and it was conducted within the perimeters of law. 


            United States of America and particularly Wahington D.C experienced several cases of drug abuse and drug related criminal activates in the early 1990’s. There were record cases on homicides which were majorly attributed to drug and substance abuse. This happened to be the particular era in which Whren and Brown were arrested and charged. There were questions all were over on whether the two Black Americans were subjects of rampant racial profiling. Whren v United States created a dangerous precedent where more suspects were unlawfully pulled down and harassed by the police and later charged with grater crime. This judicial precedent led to violations of Equal Protections Clause of the Constitution of the United States as explained in United States v. Armstrong of 1999. The data showed that the majority of those stopped, searched, investigated and charged for drug related offences were from Africa American origins (Chin, 2015). In this light it can be argued that the Black Africans still face some forms of racial discriminations. This needs an urgent address by relevant authorities to weep away the stigma. It can however be agreed that the two offenders were found with illegal substances and deserved the imposed punishments.  An insight of the facts and relevant applicable laws put Whren and Brown on the wrong side of the law and hence they deserved to be treated in accordance with the law. In conclusion, it can be said that the Supreme Court wisely ruled on this matter. 


Chin, G., & Vernon, C. (2015). Reasonable but Unconstitutional: Racial Profiling and the Radical Objectivity of Whren v. United States.

Fish, P. G. (2015). The Politics of Federal Judicial Administration. Princeton University Press.Howard Jr, J. W. (2014). Courts of appeals in the federal judicial system: A study of the second, fifth, and District of Columbia circuits. Princeton University Press.

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