Justices To Examine Police Power

Justices To Examine Police Power
Posted by FoM on September 29, 2000 at 06:12:54 PT
By Joan Biskupic, USA Today
Source: 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 belts? "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." 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 crime." 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." Source: USA Today (US)Author: Joan BiskupicPublished: September 29, 2000Copyright: 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.Contact: editor usatoday.comAddress: 1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington VA 22229Fax: (703) 247-3108Website: Justice Archives:
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #2 posted by Tim Stone on September 29, 2000 at 17:49:26 PT
Seat belts
My state passed a seat belt law some many-ish years back. There was some opposition at the time to the idea of allowing cops to stop a driver _solely_ because the seat belt appeared not to be fastened. Therefore, in the original seat belt law, it was stipulated that cops may _not_ stop a driver solely because of an unfastened seat belt, but must have other cause. The opposition was therefore mollified and the seat belt law passed. A few years later, very quietly, law enforcement lobbied for an amendment to the original seat belt law to allow them to stop motorists _just_ for seat belt violations. The measure passed the state lege with no media coverage and was enacted into law. I doubt even 10% of the residents of my state are aware that they can now be stopped just for _appearing_ not to have a seat belt fastened. That's how laws slowly enlarging authoritarian powers slowly erode limitations on government power. Always on the sly, below media radar. I surely don't know how the Supremes will decide on the interesting cases listed in the article, but as a proponent of limited state power, particularly in the coercive aspects of state power, I'm darkly pessemistic about the present court. The handcuffing seat belt violators case might actually be struck down by the Supremes. But if so, it will only be because it's regarded as a relatively trivial matter, and the majoritarian Supremes' affection for all things authoritarian won't in this case impinge on the court's tendency to always side with the people with guns and badges over individual citizens.Hazarding a guess, on the major issues, like roadblocks and heat-sensing of people's houses possibly growing pot - this is a specific marijuana issue, obviously - the Supremes will decide in favor of the police, as usual, by a 6-3 or 5-4 margin, as usual. One of the things I'm not sure many drug policy reformers truly appreciate is how much _time_ it will take to change things. Right now, however much cheery foment there is for drug policy reform, the zeitgeist, the "time-ghost," or "spirit of the times" is still decidedly anti-drug, pro-authoritarian. This is slowly changing, but it will take a loooong while for that change to work its way up the national power chain to where it affects the zeitgeist. A change in the decisions of the Supremes will only come with a change in the Supremes, which will only come as a final, end-stage product of zeitgeist changes now slowly chugging along, which will produce grassroots political changes (medpot state laws), which will produce mid-level politicians who will vote for drug policy reform and get re-elected, which will make for senior, national politicians who are more likely to appoint/approve fed judges less sympathetic to drug war zeitgeist hysteria, who will huff, and puff and blow down the house that Anslinger built. Whew, pant pant, what a sentence :)Better Days, 
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #1 posted by Kanabys on September 29, 2000 at 06:30:45 PT
I didn't live in Nazi Germany...
>> Should police be able to set up roadblocks to question motorists and use drug-sniffing dogs to check their cars? But if these questions are answered yes, it would make me feel like I was. >> 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 belts?  I realize that sometimes these have been answered yes by the pigs and it is very disturbing to me. If the supremes (not the group) decide to uphold the LEO's ability to do these things, I won't only consider moving from this state, but from this country, which once was great (and could be again.) But I would just hate to be considered a refugee of such an idiotic war.
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: