`Reform' Would Open Way for Unreasonable Search and Seizure

Article excerpt

Ever wonder what would happen if the Bill of Rights came up for a vote? You don't have to wonder anymore. The text of the Fourth Amendment, which forbids the government to conduct "unreasonable searches and seizures," was offered on the House floor last week. It promptly went down in flames, with 303 members recoiling in disgust and only 121 daring to embrace the proposition that the American people should be secure in their persons and their homes from overzealous police.

The House was debating a bill to "reform" the exclusionary rule, which forbids the courtroom use of evidence that the authorities got by breaking the law. The bill says that federal courts shall politely ignore mere constitutional violations as long as the good constable was acting on "an objectively reasonable belief" that he was not trampling on anyone's rights.

North Carolina Democrat Melvin Watt proposed to delete the heart of the measure and replace it with the text of the Fourth Amendment. Republicans were not amused. Bill McCollum of Florida informed his colleagues that if they want to "get more evidence in search and seizure cases and get more convictions and get away from technicalities letting people who have committed crimes off the hook, then you need to vote against" Watt's version. That apparently is what his fellow House members wanted.

Watt's suggestion, and McCollum's objection, served the useful purpose of reminding us that the real enemy here is not the exclusionary rule but the constitutional protection. The exclusionary rule does not put restrictions on what the police can do in fighting crime - the restrictions all come from the Fourth Amendment. The exclusionary rule merely provides a remedy for people whose rights are violated. By doing that, it encourages cops to respect the Constitution.

Before the exclusionary rule, they didn't. A few years after the Supreme Court imposed it on the states in 1961, the deputy police commissioner of New York City admitted that the decision was "a shock to us. We had to reorganize our thinking, frankly. Before this, nobody bothered to take out search warrants. Although the U.S. Constitution requires warrants in most cases, the Supreme Court had ruled that that evidence obtained without a warrant - illegally, if you will - was admissible in state courts. …