The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Why the Supreme Court’s unreasonable searches ruling matters to me

with 5 comments

This is good news:

After thirty years of near carte blanche to police regarding auto searches, this decision supports an often-abused right to privacy.  And it’s a “least-first” issue.

clipped from
Tuesday was a critical day for individual privacy rights at the U.S. Supreme Court.

[T]he court issued a major decision protecting citizens against unreasonable searches in traffic stops.

An unusual alliance of justices (Stevens, Scalia, Souter, Thomas and Ginsberg) came together in a 5-4 decision in Arizona v. Gant, ruling that officers can search a car during an arrest only if the suspect is close enough to the car to reach for a weapon or if there’s reason to believe the car contains evidence very pertinent to the arrest.

The decision strengthens fourth amendment protections for criminal suspects and limits the wide latitude officers have had for nearly three decades since the court’s decision in New York v. Belton.

New York Times: Supreme Court Cuts Back Officers’ Searches of Vehicles

WSJ Law Blog: Police Power to Search Cars Up in Smoke

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I have seen abuse by police.  I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged guy, so I’ve not seen it a lot.  But on a couple of occasions, the curtain has lifted just enough to allow a glimpse onto a stage many Americans experience as normal life.

I saw it in the 1970s when law enforcement officers harassed and brutalized young Iowans during the days of anti-war demonstrations.  I was shocked and terrified, utterly unable to judge whether I might become a target of police violence, even though I watched from my dormitory window.

I’ve seen it, more recently, in the life of a young friend who, identified as someone with whom law enforcement was “familiar,” became an easy mark for demeaning stops, trivial arrests and treatments that simply don’t happen to people like me.

Seems like the young and the poor—those with the least recourse for pushing back—are the typical targets.  My friend made too much money to have court-appointed legal representation, but too little to have any hope of hiring his own.  He couldn’t possibly plead “not guilty” — how would he pay his rent without the money he’d lose from time off work for hearings?   How would he possibly know enough to represent himself?

So his debts grew, his life got a little harder, his record a little longer, his sense of helplessness a little deeper.

My outrage was less well-controlled.  This generally doesn’t happen to guys like me; we don’t even know it happens.  Yet, while telling the story to a young Hispanic mother, I realized she saw arrest as an inevitable consequence of being non-white in America, and dreaded the day it came to her boys.

In the few cases I’ve seen, it simply didn’t seem to occur to the officers involved that their duty was to defend these people they harassed—that bulling was betraying their duty as officers of “law enforcement.”

Perhaps the Supreme Court has made that law just a little clearer.

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  1. […] Why the Supreme Court’s unreasonable searches ruling matters to me ( Share and Enjoy: […]

  2. I think that one of the reasons for our failure of empathy is our failure of imagination.

    Like you, I’ve had just enough run-ins with police who profiled myself or my friends for having long hair and fast, expensive-looking cars (during the Miami Vice years, so kinda understandable) to spur my imagination to wonder at what it must be like to be black or Hispanic.

    I’ve also heard many, many stories as told by police and lawyers that make my head spin.

    Bottom line, my heart goes out to anyone caught up in our system of justice.

    Joe Hayes

    May 5, 2009 at 11:38 am

    • Mine too. I’ve seen a dear young one sent off to prison, and it broke my heart.


      May 5, 2009 at 9:25 pm

  3. Clearer – but not clear enough. I grew up in Lincoln, Illinois on Route 66. The “State” police camped out on the road and racially profiled every driver on the highway. The practice finally came under review, I believe, during the administration of Adlai Stevenson.

    The practice was so unlimited that state patrolmen were openly proud of their discovery of how easy it was to harass people of color.


    May 3, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    • Reminds me of the scene in “Driving Miss Daisy” where they’re picnicking beside the highway when the state patrol shows up.

      I remember a car that was parked most days at the safety center in Iowa City that had a bumper sticker showing a peace sign, beside which were the words “the footprint of the American chicken.”


      May 5, 2009 at 11:04 am

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