'The Most Humiliating Experience I Have Ever Had' -- Why Is the Supreme Court So Callous About Privacy?
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But indeed, it is on precisely this level of "human experience" that the Supreme Court bench seems so pathetically lacking.
One day after the oral arguments in Redding, the Supreme Court handed down a surprising decision in another Fourth Amendment case out of Arizona.
In Arizona v. Gant, Tuscon resident Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license (and for failure to appear in court on a prior charge of driving with a suspended license). Gant, who was outside of his car at the time, was handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car. Police officers then searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket lying in the back seat.
Attorneys for Gant argued, all the way up to the Supreme Court, that this search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. After all, Gant was not arrested on suspicion of possession of drugs. Nor did his proximity to his car pose a threat to the police officers (as required by legal precedents). The police had no reason to search his car.
In a surprising move, the Supreme Court agreed, handing down a ruling that was widely hailed as a win for Fourth Amendment rights. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the majority decided that "police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search, or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest."
"When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable, unless police obtain a warrant or show that an other exception to the warrant requirement applies," the court ruled.
Scott Lemieux, writing on the American Prospect blog Tapped, called it a "rare Roberts Court victory for the Fourth Amendment."
"Today's case will at least prevent the police from using unrelated minor offenses to justify drug searches without probable cause," he wrote.
Indeed, for decades this practice has been a common component of the war on drugs, a systematic violation of the Fourth Amendment.
One Cato Institute policy paper ("A Society of Suspects") argued way back in 1992 that the advent of the drug war meant that the Fourth Amendment has come to be understood as prohibiting "only 'unreasonable' searches and seizures -- and what is reasonable in the milieu of a war on drugs is construed very broadly in favor of local police and federal drug agents."
(Indeed, in Gant's case, at a hearing on whether the cocaine evidence should be admissable at trial, one of the arresting officers told the court that he had searched Gant's vehicle "because the law says we can do it.")
The ruling in Gant was meant to correct the experience of " countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious than a traffic violation" whose cars have been searched unconstitutionally.
Gant might have shown that the justices have some appreciation left for the Fourth Amendment -- and in the age of warrantless wiretapping and telecom immunity, this is no small thing.
But meanwhile, aside from providing troubling evidence that the escalating war against prescription drugs is criminalizing students, the oral arguments in Redding are proof of another problem characteristic of so many other cases in recent years in which the Court has sided with the powerful against the powerless.
The current Supreme Court bench is stacked with people who cannot bring themselves to comprehend -- let alone empathize with -- egregious abuses of power that affect people with whom they simply can't identify. (Chief Justice John Roberts, after all, is the man who ruled that police were well within their rights to handcuff a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry on a subway platform.)