High Court Expands Police Power to Search Search-and-Seizure Cases Are Highlight of Supreme Court's Term

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

High Court Expands Police Power to Search Search-and-Seizure Cases Are Highlight of Supreme Court's Term


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Which of the following violates the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures? (Hint: All three cases were decided this term by the US Supreme Court; only one was deemed a violation.)

*A Minnesota police officer peeks between the blinds of an apartment window and sees three people placing cocaine in baggies. All three are arrested.

*A motorist pulled over for a routine traffic violation in Iowa is placed under arrest after the police officer finds drugs under the driver's seat. *A Wyoming trooper searching a car for drugs used by the driver finds drugs inside a passenger's purse. He has no reason to suspect the passenger when he starts the search, but arrests her after the discovery. Of the three cases, the only one found to be unconstitutional was the drug arrest after the routine traffic stop. In the other two incidents, the court found that police had acted properly. This term, the Supreme Court is considering a relatively large number of cases involving Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In addition to the three cited above, the court is also examining whether police violate the privacy of a home when they allow the media to follow them as they execute warrants, and whether police need a warrant prior to forfeiting a car suspected of being used to deal drugs. Analysts say it is difficult to generalize about why the court accepts certain kinds of cases, but the rulings in this area are consistent with a 20- to 30-year trend of siding with law enforcement in cases that pit police against individual rights. "We've seen an erosion in individual liberties and an increase in government power in relation to searches and seizures," says Alan Rafael, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago. "This court almost always finds the balance weighing in favor of the government." The conservative wing of the court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, has been increasingly willing to avoid imposition of the exclusionary rule - the legal imperative that if police use improper methods to obtain evidence, it can't be used against a defendant. At the same time, the conservatives on the court have sought to streamline law-enforcement operations by simplifying as much as possible the often complicated area of search-and-seizure law. "The Fourth Amendment is complex and you have police officers who aren't attorneys but who have to make determinations on the spot," says Charles Hobson of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. "You can't expect police officers to cope with something that complex unless you have a few simple, defined rules." As written, the Fourth Amendment sounds simple.

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