WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court told police yesterday to get a court order before they help private landlords evict unwanted tenants or aid retail stores and auto dealers in repossessing property when payments aren't made.
In a unanimous ruling, the court said that the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which bars police from using "unreasonable" methods of seizing property, applies fully when police lend a hand to landlords and merchants retrieving property.
The court ordered a lower federal court to decide whether police in a Chicago suburb, Elk Grove, Ill., had gone too far when they joined a mobile-home landlord in uprooting a trailer and carting it off because back rent was due.
Without waiting for an eviction order from a court, the landlord at Willoway Terrace called in police and, as they stood by, had the trailer pulled free of its moorings and towed into the street.
That move, Justice Byron R. White remarked wryly in the court's opinion yesterday, gave "new meaning to the term 'mobile home.' "
fail to see," Mr. White added, "how being unceremoniously dispossessed of one's home in the manner alleged to have occurred here can be viewed as anything but a seizure invoking the protection of the Fourth Amendment."
The court overturned a lower court ruling that, in eviction and repossession cases, the Fourth Amendment does not even apply unless police, in helping to seize property, actually invade a home or otherwise violate someone's privacy.
The court declared that the Constitution protects property as much as it does privacy and that police thus may act unconstitutionally if they go after property without letting the legal process work first.
The lower court had expressed concern that a ruling applying the Fourth Amendment's protections to evictions or repossessions would flood the courts with constitutional cases, but the Supreme Court said that was an exaggerated fear.
In the White opinion, the court stressed that it was not settling whether Cook County police had acted unconstitutionally when they supported the mobile home park owner in physically evicting the Edward Soldal family in 1987.