Pubdate: Thur, 17 Dec 1998
Source: Dayton Daily News (OH)


Justices interpret 4th Amendment very narrowly

The U.S. Supreme Court justices in a recent ruling seemed shocked -
shocked! - that Iowa police had got it into their heads that they could
search any drivers and cars they pulled over for routine traffic violations.
But the court needed only to look at its own rulings in recent years to see
where the idea came from that privacy claims have little standing against
the claims of law-enforcement convenience.

The court's record of indifference to privacy issues is not perfect, but it
leans heavily against any but the most narrow and literal readings of the
Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantees. The court has been winking for
years at supposedly forbidden `unreasonable searches and seizures' that
violate the `right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
papers, and effects.'

Drop-in visitors, beware!

Indeed, the justices needed to refer back only a couple weeks to their
ruling that guests in your home don't enjoy the protection you do from
warrantless police searches. Perhaps overnight guests would, some justices
said, but not day visitors, a distinction notable mainly for its
arbitrariness. Your home may still be your castle, but it could become a
dungeon for drop-ins.

As the court became more conservative with Reagan and Bush appointees - a
condition little changed by President Bill Clinton's two - it came to favor
the power of the state over the liberty of individuals. (An odd tack for
conservatism, one would think, but there you are.)

In 1986 the justices held that governments can outlaw and punish even the
homebound, consensual exercise of sex acts a legislative majority chooses to
proscribe. It would be difficult to imagine a more intrusive extension of
police power.

The court has been increasingly indulgent of forced drug tests in schools
and workplaces even when no drug use is suspected. It has shrugged off
schoolhouse strip searches of students. In an Ohio case, the court endorsed
the search of the car of a driver arrested for speeding - an obvious
precursor to the Iowa law that permitted such searches for any traffic stop.

Justices reached limit

That broad grant of police power finally was too much for the court. It
meant anyone driving in Iowa was subject to a search for criminal evidence
at any officer's whim. All that was required was an officer's willingness to
write a ticket charging the driver with fudging a red light, creeping
through a stop sign, beating the speed limit by a few miles per hour.
Officers could, in practice, stop and search motorists for spite, sport or
just because they didn't like a driver's looks.

The latest ruling gives only feeble cause for encouragement. Its unanimity
shows that the justices do, at the extreme, have some sort of gag reflex
against privacy violations, but the justices made only a very fine
distinction, one between searching drivers `arrested' for a traffic
violation (OK) and merely ticketed (not OK).

The justices show no inclination to rethink their burdening body of
decisions that have steadily narrowed the zones and conditions in which
Americans can reasonably expect to be shielded from the rummaging intrusions
of a nosy state.

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Checked-by: Don Beck