It could happen to all of us

Dan Rodricks

August 07, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

So why is it that we need a Supreme Court composed of jurists who interpret the Constitution as the passionate guardians of individual rights and liberties? Why is it that, during each step of the Reagan-Bush Revolution, the most ardent fans of liberty have cringed at the specter of these retro-thinkers and judicial reconstructionists stepping to the highest bench?

It's because William and Ruby Johnson are people like us, like all the rest of us, and what happened to them could happen to us, to all the rest of us.

There must be a Supreme Court that stands against the kind of intrusion the Johnsons faced when they drove through Maryland three years ago. There must be a high court of last resort in which the Johnsons, and all the rest of us, can believe.

The issue in this case never reached the Supreme Court, or any court. The matter was settled through negotiation with the Anne Arundel County solicitor's office a couple of weeks ago. But in this age of profound judicial change -- when the Supreme Court says suspects arrested without warrant may be detained for 48 hours without a court appearance, and that convictions based partly on coerced confessions do not always have to be thrown out -- then the Johnson case should make everyone at least squeamish.

William Johnson is 55 years old. He works for the City of New York. His wife, Ruby, is 34 and is employed as a social worker.

In May 1988 they came to Maryland. They were on the way to Virginia Beach for a vacation, but decided to stop in Laurel to visit Mr. Johnson's nephew, a 36-year-old Air Force sergeant. In the early afternoon of Friday, May 27, they checked into a motel on Fort Meade Road (Md. 198) for a one-night stay. They put their bags in their room, then went off to visit Mr. Johnson's nephew. They returned to the motel about 8 p.m.

A statement of facts, prepared by the Johnsons' attorney at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, stated:

"Upon entering the motel, they immediately noticed that someone had been smoking in the room. They then noticed that the drawers to the dressers were opened and it was obvious that someone had gone through the clothing in the bags. They were shocked. They then noticed a note on the dresser which stated, 'Police was in your room -- if you have any questions call A.A. Police Department -- 987-0101.' "

The Johnsons approached the motel clerk, who told them that the manager had let the police into the room. "It was obvious to the Johnsons," the statement said, "that the individuals who worked at the motel believed they had no choice other than to do whatever the police told them to do."

The Johnsons felt violated. When they called police that evening, a sergeant told them he knew nothing of the incident and suggested the Johnsons call back the next day.

The next day, the clerk at the motel told the Johnsons that police suspected Mr. Johnson's nephew of being a drug dealer named "Fast Eddie." The clerk said the police never showed a warrant, but were given access to the room.

Later that day, the Johnsons spoke with an Anne Arundel County police sergeant. "The Johnsons were told," the statement of facts said, "that the police had, in fact, been by the motel and had entered their motel room but there was nothing to worry about. They were told that the police had been sitting in the area and had observed a known drug dealer named 'Brown' as he entered the motel. The Johnsons were told that no warrant was needed if the police were in pursuit of a suspect."

The sergeant, the statement said, discouraged the Johnsons from filing a report, but they insisted on filing a complaint.

"At this time," the statement said, "Mr. Johnson was told that he would have to come to the police station in order to file such a complaint, and when he made inquiry as to how to go to the police station, he was told that he should get a map."

At the police station, the Johnsons were told, among other things, that police had, in fact, a warrant to search their room. They also were told that police would have been justified entering the room, even without the warrant, because they were in pursuit of a drug dealer. They were again discouraged from filing a complaint. Mr. Johnson persisted.

After returning to New York, Mr. Johnson was told there would be an investigation of his complaint. The following September, the Johnsons learned by letter that an Anne Arundel County police officer "had been disciplined as a result of the incident." And that's all the letter said.

The Johnsons were deeply offended -- first, by the entry into their room, and then by the reaction from police when they attempted to report a break-in. The statement from their attorney said:

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