The Supreme Court is now doing what the Executive and Legislative branches have consistently failed to do: defend our precious and ever-eroding civil liberties.
Last week, in Arizona v. Gant, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers may no longer routinely search the vehicles of citizens that they have just arrested. This ruling puts some much needed teeth into the “unreasonable searches and seizures” clause of the 4th Amendment, and makes it harder for the government to fight its immoral and oppressive drug war.
This ruling is a pleasant surprise, given the Court’s recent history of ignoring nearly all of our 4th Amendment protections. Before this case, the Court has ruled that a warrant can be issued from an anonymous informant; that evidence collected without a warrant can be used in court if the officer acted in “good faith”; that police don’t need a warrant to monitor homes and backyards with low-flying helicopters; that police can use dogs to search luggage and cars without probable cause; and that government employees and public school students are allowed to be drug tested.
All of these previous rulings are not only gross violations of our constitutional protections against the misuse and abuse of unchecked state power, but most have come as a result of our government’s insistence in fighting the drug war.
In 1981, a New York police officer pulled a car over, “smelt burning marijuana,” confiscated numerous envelopes thought of containing the weed, searched the driver’s trunk, zippers and eventually his pockets, where he found a bag of cocaine. In 1999, Rodney Gant (the same Gant whose charges were just dropped by Arizona) was pulled over in the driveway in his Tucson, Arizona home for driving with a suspended license. After handcuffing Gant and placing him in the backseat of the police car, “officer” Todd Griffith then searched his car, found cocaine in one of his jacket pockets, and he went to jail.
The Supreme Court ruled that both of these cases were totally constitutional; that police had the power to search a citizen’s car without a search warrant.
Police obviously have the right to act if an arrestee reaches for a weapon or attempts to hide evidence. But in both cases previously mentioned, and thousands of similar cases a year, the arrestees were either properly handcuffed or in the back of a police car. For almost thirty years, police officers have been routinely conducting searches of cars and property without warrants, but now, with this recent Supreme Court ruling, this will (hopefully) come to a screeching halt.
In Arizona, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion of the Court, stating that police may only search for evidence that is directly connected to the crime that caused the arrest.
Stevens’ opinion, coincidentally, was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two justices whom liberals hate, but for the most part, are principled civil libertarians. Scalia, in his eloquent concurrence, goes even farther than Justice Stevens in defense of civil liberties. Scalia called routine car searches “plainly unconstitutional,” arguing that these searches are not necessary to protect officers from hidden weapons, which can be done by simply restraining the arrestee.
The Supreme Court has not been perfect on 4th Amendment protections, but this case is a bold defense of necessary restraints on the State (i.e., police), especially as more and more of our liberties are stripped away from the consequences of the drug war.