Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April surprise! Bill of Rights wins one at Supreme Court

What are we to make of today's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding limits on the ability of police (read "government) to search vehicles without a warrant? Could it be that we have finally reached the point where the nation's highest court, despite its cadre of radically conservative justices, is going to honor the promise of the Bill of Rights against the whims of the executive branch? Were the reversals of overly restrictive Bush administration-era detainment policies, which signaled that this court was taking its constitutional responsibilities seriously, just the beginning? In fact, the 5-4 ruling in Arizona v. Gant (No. 07-542) did not really break any new ground, according to the New York Times, but restored a measure of balance to warrantless searches involving motorists. "Although we have recognized that a motorist’s privacy interest in his vehicle is less substantial than in his home,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the 5-4 majority, “the former interest is nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection.” The ruling upheld an Arizona Supreme Court decision in a case involving drugs found in a car that was routinely searched after the driver had been arrested and physically detained. Perhaps more importantly, the ruling reversed the high court's 1981 decision in New York v. Belton, which had been seen as a controlling precedent for the past 28 years. In Belton, a case involving four defendants in a car stopped by a single police officer on the New York Thruway, the court held that a search without a warrant was legal if done soon after an arrest. But Stevens said Belton applied only when an immediate search is necessary for the safety of the officer or to preserve evidence. In an unusual split, Stevens was joined in the majority by Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of the court's most conservative justices, and by David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, joined as expected by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Anthony M. Kennedy. But Stephen G. Breyer, one of the court's most liberal justices, also joined the dissent. Breyer indicated at oral argument in October that he did not want to disturb the Belton precedent after 27 years.

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