Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Searches and Seizures

Court Limits Searches of Suspect's Cars:

The Supreme Court today sharply limited the power of police to search a suspect's car after making an arrest, acknowledging that the decision changes a rule that law enforcement has relied on for nearly 30 years.

In a decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens, an unusual five-member majority said police may search a vehicle without a warrant only when the suspect could reach for a weapon or try to destroy evidence or when it is "reasonable to believe" there is evidence in the car supporting the crime at hand.

As SCOTUS blog notes, the decision may be more important than first blush.

Justice Stevens’s opinion for the majority, which was joined by an uncommon coalition of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, held that stare decisis cannot justify unconstitutional police practice, especially in a case — such as this one — that can clearly be distinguished on its facts from Belton and its progeny.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia disparaged that line of cases as “badly reasoned” with a “fanciful reliance” upon the officer safety rule. Justice Scalia was clearly the swing vote in the case, explaining that a “4-to-1-to-4 opinion that leaves the governing rule uncertain” would be “unacceptable.” In his view, the “charade of officer safety” in Belton, Chimel, and Thornton v. United States (extending Belton to all “recent occupants” of a vehicle) should be abandoned in favor of the rule that the majority ultimately adopts in its opinion.

The case is Arizona v. Gant (2009).

In other news, the court heard oral arguments today in the juvenile strip search case (which I wrote about last month). As predicted, the court seemed unsympathetic to the students and whatever 4th amendment rights they may have to guard against being strip searched by school officials.

The Supreme Court seemed worried Tuesday about tying the hands of school officials looking for drugs and weapons on campus as they wrestled with the appropriateness of a strip-search of a teenaged girl accused of having prescription-strength ibuprofen.

Would it be constitutional if officials were looking for weapons, or drugs like crack, meth or heroin? "Does that make a difference?" Justice Anthony Kennedy asked. No, Mr. Wolf replied.

That leaves school administrators with the choice of embarrassing a child through a search or possibly having other children die while in their care, Justice David Souter said. "With those stakes in mind, why isn't that reasonable?" Mr. Souter said.

The school's lawyer argued that the courts shouldn't limit school officials' ability to search out what they think are dangerous items on school grounds. "We've got to be able to make decisions," lawyer Matthew Wright said.

But justices worried that allowing a strip search of school-age children might lead to more intrusive searches, like body-cavity searches. "There would be no legal basis in saying that was out of bounds," Mr. Souter said.

Souter seems all over the board there, but the conservative bloc (including Breyer) seem more sympathetic to school officials. One can't read too much into oral argument comments, but they often give hints as to which way a case is going, and this one seems to going against juveniles (again, as predicted).

Read the facts of the case once more:

A schoolmate had accused Ms. Redding, then an eighth-grade student, of giving her pills.

Vice Principal Kerry Wilson took Ms. Redding to his office to search her backpack. When nothing was found, the teen was taken to a nurse's office where she says she was ordered to take off her shirt and pants. Ms. Redding, who is now 19, said they then told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area. No pills were found.

But plenty of crack, no doubt. Decision should be out by June.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Yeah, the 4th amendment applies...unless you live within 100 miles of the border(this includes the coast)a.k.a. "Constitution-free" zone. This is established by Federal statute 8 CFR 287.1 (a)(1-3) and has been upheld ny the Supreme Court. see: http://arstechnica.com/security/news/2008/10/aclu-23-of-us-population-lives-in-constitution-free-zone.ars