updated 3/30/2004 6:26:49 PM ET 2004-03-30T23:26:49

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that government agents can search and even dismantle a car’s gas tank as part of drug and other smuggling interdiction at the nation’s borders.

Border officers can randomly search gas tanks, despite the absence of specific indication that a particular car is suspect, the high court said. People crossing the border have less expectation of privacy than elsewhere, and searching the inner reaches of a car is not the same thing as a strip search or other intrusive search of the driver, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.

“The government’s interest in preventing the entry of unwanted persons and effects is at its zenith at the international border,” Rehnquist wrote.

A federal appeals court in California had said that officers can visually inspect gas tanks but not dismantle them unless they have reason to suspect wrongdoing.

Road map to the Supreme CourtCritics, including the White House, had argued that the lower court decision would make it easier to sneak weapons, drugs and even people into America. Lawyers on the other side argued that it’s unconstitutionally intrusive and potentially hazardous for vehicles to be taken apart at border stops.

The Supreme Court ruled in the case of Manuel Flores-Montano, whose station wagon was searched at the Otay Mesa Port in California in February 2002. After a mechanic removed the gas tank, officers found 37 kilograms of marijuana bricks.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that the government could not use the marijuana as evidence because the search was unconstitutional.

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, but the Supreme Court has carved out numerous exceptions.

The case is United States v. Flores-Montano, 02-1794.

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