Pubdate: Fri, 29 Sep 2000
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Contact:  1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington VA 22229
Fax: (703) 247-3108
Author: Joan Biskupic, USA Today


For much of the past three decades, law enforcement has ruled at the Supreme
Court. The justices have given police more power to stop motorists, search
homes and put people in jail.

But there's been a modest reversal in recent years. With a court term
opening Monday, a stack of cases will determine how much this court wants to
restrain officers at a time when police are cracking down on low-level
transgressions. Law enforcement officials cite such efforts as a factor in
reducing crime rates nationwide.

Among the issues the court will decide by next summer:

Should police be able to set up roadblocks to question motorists and use
drug-sniffing dogs to check their cars?

Should officers be permitted to point a heat-detecting device at homes to
find high-intensity lights used to grow marijuana inside?

Should police be allowed to handcuff and jail drivers who fail to wear seat

"These aren't cases at the margins of the law," Harvard law professor
William Stuntz says. "They raise fundamental issues about policing,
including when police can arrest someone for a minor offense, then search
for drugs or guns."

Overall, the 2000-01 term offers a provocative slate of cases, heavy on
disputes over police power but also focused on free-speech rights,
discrimination against disabled people and recurring battles over the
breadth of Congress' authority.

The new cases pale in comparison with the emotional issues that marked the
last term: "partial birth" abortion, gay Scout leaders, prayer at high
school football games and the Miranda warning that tells suspects they may
remain silent.

Nevertheless in this election year, a spotlight remains on the court, where
the nine justices are deeply split over protections for individual rights.
With three of the justices 70 or older, these also could be the waning days
of the Rehnquist Court and could seal the legacy of these justices who have
been together for a record 6 1/2 years.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who turns 76 on Sunday, has not signaled
that he is ready to retire, but the Republican appointee might be inclined
to step down if George W. Bush wins the White House. John Paul Stevens, 80,
the eldest and most liberal justice, has served a quarter-century. Sandra
Day O'Connor, a critical swing vote on the high court, turned 70 this spring
and is starting her 20th term. The departure of any of them could sharply
re-direct the court.

The new criminal disputes arise against the backdrop of recent cases that
produced surprisingly lopsided votes favoring defendants. None was more
symbolic than the ruling last term backing the Miranda requirement. The
opinion was written by Rehnquist, who with his predecessor Warren Burger
(1969-86) oversaw an era of pro-police rulings.

Several other recent rulings suggest the court has become increasingly
suspicious about some new, aggressive techniques police are using to counter
drugs and gun violence.

In one of those cases last year, the justices declared that police may not
stop and frisk someone simply because an anonymous tipster said he was
carrying a gun. The decision rejected the idea that the dangers posed by
illegal firearms should give police more latitude.

In another dispute, the court said police cannot look for drugs by randomly
squeezing the luggage of bus passengers.

A year earlier, justices spurned arguments from cities across the USA about
street crime and struck down a Chicago ordinance that prevented people
suspected of being gang members from hanging out together in public.

This term, the "How far can police go?" theme continues.

The court will hear Ferguson vs. Charleston, a South Carolina case that
examines whether a hospital, working with local police, conducted an
unconstitutional search when it tested pregnant women's urine for cocaine.
Those who tested positive were arrested. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the
4th Circuit said the practice was justified to protect fetuses and prevent
"crack babies." (See story).

The court also will hear Indianapolis vs. Edmond, a dispute over that city's
policy of setting up roadblocks so police can check for driver's licenses,
peer through car windows and lead drug-sniffing dogs around the vehicles.
When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit struck down the policy as
a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable
searches, it said the practice "belongs to the genre of general programs of
surveillance which invade privacy wholesale in order to discover evidence of

Hoping the court will agree, Ken Falk of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union
says, "The Fourth Amendment has stood as a barrier against the notion that
the government may seize and search innocent persons without cause in the
hopes of finding guilty ones."

But Jeffrey Sutton, an Ohio lawyer who represents local governments, says
officials have reason to take extraordinary steps. "These laws have been
passed by legislators who are properly responding to their constituents, who
are concerned about the ready availability of drugs."

An Oregon case, Kyllo vs. United States, concerns a new weapon used to
ferret out people growing marijuana. A federal appeals court spurned a
privacy complaint from a man who was caught cultivating the drug after
police, using a thermal-imaging device, detected high heat levels in his
home and then sought a warrant to search inside. The U.S. Court of Appeals
for the 9th Circuit said, "Whatever the 'star wars' capabilities this
technology may possess in the abstract, the thermal-imaging device employed
here intruded into nothing" when it scanned emissions at the house.

Another matter, Atwater vs. Lago Vista, involves a Texas woman who was
returning from soccer practice with her children when an officer stopped her
for failing to buckle up. He handcuffed her and took her to jail; the legal
question is whether the Fourth Amendment allows such a full-scale arrest for
a minor offense.

A divided federal appeals court upheld the arrest, saying it wasn't
unusually harmful. One dissenting judge said the majority turned "a blind
eye on the extreme facts of the case."
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