SCOTUS ruling could weaken Fourth Amendment protections

Certain Constitutional rights are cited frequently in public discussion, including the First Amendment right to free speech and the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Other Constitutional rights are cited mostly in a criminal defense context, such as the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

This generally means that law enforcement agencies cannot search our property unless they have a warrant or can otherwise establish reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. Of course, courts sometimes disagree on what constitutes reasonable suspicion in certain circumstances. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a drug crimes case is a good example.

The case concerned a 2008 traffic stop in California that led to a vehicle search and the discovery of 30 pounds of marijuana. It all started with an anonymous 911 call. The caller identified herself as another driver who was allegedly driven off the road by the defendant. She said she had seen him driving erratically and gave police his license plate number.

Police were then able to locate and tail the defendant, following him for about five minutes. During this time, they did not observe any erratic driving, but decided to pull him over anyway on suspicion of drunk driving based only on the account given in the anonymous 911 call. The defendant was not drunk, but the stop led to a search, which led to discovery of the drugs.

The Supreme Court ruled in a five-to-four vote that the stop was legal. But Justice Antonin Scalia – who usually votes along politically conservative lines – wrote a strong dissent of the majority opinion. He and the three female justices on the Court argued that the stop was not justified.

When police received the anonymous call, Scalia argued, they had justification to tail the car and watch for erratic driving. This would allow them to independently corroborate or refute the caller’s observation. But because they observed the driver for five minutes and saw no erratic driving, they didn’t have reason to suspect that he was committing a crime.

Scalia went on to explain why the Court’s ruling spells trouble for all Americans. He wrote: “After today’s [majority] opinion all of us on the road, and not just drug dealers, are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.”

Source: The Week, “Why Antonin Scalia was right to defend a drug dealer,” Michael Brendan Dougherty, April 22, 2014

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