Fourth Amendment deserves more respect

Posted: Tuesday, November 07, 2000

The following editorial appeared Friday in the San Jose Mercury News:

Did you hear the one about the soccer mom in Texas who went to jail for not buckling her seat belt? Gail Atwater's story is no joke, even though law enforcement this bizarre cries for a punch line.

Three years ago she was shuttling her two kids home from soccer practice cruising at 15 mph through a residential neighborhood when a suburban cop pulled her over. Naturally, he meant well.

Atwater forgot to fasten up herself and her children. So to make an example, the officer cuffed Atwater with her hands behind her back and locked her in a cell. All this was over an offense that carried a maximum fine of $50.

Atwater has made a federal case of it. So far she's convinced an appeals court that the police violated the Fourth Amendment. Now it's become one of five disputes that the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing this term on possible illegal searches and seizures by the government.

We hope the justices will continue to take tough looks at questionable intrusions into your right to be left alone. That desire hardly should be controversial. But consider this: There are plenty of reasons to argue that courts don't give the Fourth Amendment the full status it deserves. Legal scholars deride the provision's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures as the "3 1-2 Amendment." Judges too predictably dismiss citizen complaints.

Now optimism exists that the high court may be correcting this misguided approach. The justices have heard seven cases on the subject in the past two sessions an amazing number, given their tight docket. And law enforcement has been on the losing side of some surprising decisions.

This year's lineup is unusual - and may herald more beefed-up oversight. Past cases involved criminal suspects trying to wiggle out of felony convictions. These unsympathetic characters are difficult to rally around. But, when they lose, their cases contribute to a bad atmosphere that the rest of us have to deal with when we encounter the police. Like the soccer mom locked up because the officer deemed it acceptable to teach her a harsh lesson for not wearing a seat belt.

Another Supreme Court case this term involves law-abiding citizens upset about being held at police roadblocks. In Indianapolis, officers like to set up big dragnets to ferret out drugs. Keeping narcotics off the streets is a great goal. It's another case of good intentions.

But to carry it out the police have to detain everyone driving by a checkpoint. Motorists don't get to leave until the officers are convinced the car isn't loaded with drugs. Usually, this kind of warrantless search requires at least a suspicion that the individual was committing a crime.

The Supreme Court heard the case last month. Justice Antonin Scalia pounced on the government lawyer who suggested court precedents justified nearly any roadblocks. That would be "sorta scary," he noted. We second that, and we applaud the high court's efforts to give the country the full Fourth Amendment.

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