If you are a fan of the constitution, time is running out. Pack your family into your car and visit Washington D.C. immediately. Ask to see the Fourth Amendment. There isn't much of it left, and in a few more days it may be gone entirely.
The line between a free state and a police state is almost physical. Civilized counties spend a lot of time and energy pushing it back and forth, trying to find the best position. Last week the Supreme Court gave it a mighty heave in the wrong direction.
The SC has been dismantling the fourth amendment a piece at a time because its guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure makes the War on Some Drugs difficult. They’ve refused to rule on the RICO laws, which were specifically designed to bankrupt defendants, preventing them from hiring expensive defense attorneys. They've ruled that if a vehicle is used in a crime without the owner's knowledge, the government may seize it anyway. They claim a motor home isn't really a home, even if it is your sole residence. And now they've ruled that police can arrest, detain, and harass someone for a minor traffic infraction, even when the maximum penalty for the infraction couldn't possibly result in jail time.
Gail Atwater, a forty-eight year mom, was driving through her home town with her two young children in the back seat. None of them were wearing seatbelts. Bart Turek, a Texas cop, pulled her over, and in that loud, abusive, friendly Texas-cop way threatened to take her and her kids to jail. The children were terrified. Bart, realizing they wouldn't respect him if he didn't keep his promises, slapped handcuffs on Gail, tossed her into his cop car, and hauled her away. He didn't fasten her seatbelt. A passing neighbor took the kids home, saving the officer from the trouble of having to call in for extra-small handcuffs.
She was processed and stuck in a jail cell. Several hours later she was released, after putting up a $310 bond to guarantee she'd return to court for her $50 ticket.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that was just fine and dandy. The cop can't jail you for the offense, but they can jail you because, well, because they feel like it.
One of their justifications was that it doesn’t happen often enough to be a concern. (Gail Atwater would probably disagree.) The reason it doesn't happen much is that, until now, cops didn't know they could get away with it. Now they’ve been given permission, we can expect some police forces will make it their Standard Operating Procedure.
The ruling was on the constitutionality of the Texas state law. Although several states have similar laws on the books, such misbehavior is not allowed in my home state of New York. We just let New York City impound vehicles and keep them, even after the accused is declared not guilty. Rudy is very proud of this.
Thermo imaging is one of many new technologies that looks through the walls of your house. The results are somewhat crude, but technology always advances rapidly, especially when there is a big market for it. And the Supreme Court, the very people who just ruled it's perfectly acceptable for citizens to be tossed in jail for the most trivial infractions, is about to rule if the local cops, and the state cops, and the feds, and the multitude of government TLAs that have their own police force, will be allowed to watch you through the walls of your home.
In the current case, the government was looking for heat lamps, not people, but the principle is the same. If the SC is in the same mood as they were when ruling against Gail Atwater, police will have permission to watch your every move, virtually anywhere, wait until you inadvertently break one of our millions of minor laws, and then make your life hell for as long as it amuses them.
It was a nice amendment while it lasted, wasn't it?
Additional Information:Update: USA v Kyllo, the thermal imaging case, was decided in favor of the fourth amendment. But just barely. It was a 5-4 decision, and not at all along the expected party lines. While we can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for the moment, it's scary to realize we came within one vote of letting the government watch whoever they want, through the walls of their home, without a warrant.
A Washington Post article about the upcoming decision
Light? We don' need no steenking light.
© 2001 Dave Hitt