Court depends on police not to abuse their power

February 22, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

If Maryland Attorney General Joe Curran wants a police state he should simply ask for it.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court -- that eminent gaggle of cognitively challenged jurists -- ruled that when police stop a vehicle, they now have virtual carte blanche to order everyone out.

The ruling gave police "unlimited authority" in traffic stops, wrote Sun Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston. It occurs to me that unlimited authority for police should occur only in police states. Or, as the good cop character Vargas tells the bad cop character Quinland in Orson Welles' brilliant film "Touch of Evil," "police work is only easy in a police state."

Curran and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno went before the court earlier asking for more police powers during traffic stops, citing the need for officers' safety and the statistics that show their lives are most at risk during traffic stops.

It was in late 1996 that Curran and Reno first went before the high court and made their arguments. The most conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, was skeptical and asked both prosecutors tough questions. But eventually he wimped out and became part of the seven-judge majority.

The two holdout justices who are still leery about expanding police powers made the most appropriate observation. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and John Paul Stevens both observed, Denniston wrote, "the ruling will apply to every traffic stop 'in which there is not even a scintilla of evidence of any potential risk to the police officer.' "

Their view did not carry the day. But if police safety is what we want, it seems that is most easily achieved in a police state. If Curran, Reno and the majority of justices who voted for this ruling really want to make life safer for police officers, I have an even better suggestion: suspend the Bill of Rights, especially that troublesome Fourth Amendment.

It just gets in the way, doesn't it, this troubling idea the Founding Fathers had about searches and seizures being reasonable? More than one judge has taken the Fourth Amendment seriously, throwing out evidence that police seized during illegal searches. Civil libertarians have cheered such actions, while conservatives who want to get tough on crime have simply wrung their hands.

'Tis a tricky business, this civil liberties stuff. They have been suspended in our past, for reasons both bad (Gen. Wilkinson's reign of despotism and terror in the Louisiana territory in the early 1800s) and good (the Ku Klux Klan Act of the 1870s that provided for internment without habeas corpus to curb Klan terrorism). In times of emergency, they should perhaps be suspended. But we as a nation need to ask ourselves the tough question: do the statistics of assaults on officers during traffic stops indicate a national emergency or are they simply an indication of an occupational hazard?

There was, indeed, a middle ground between officers not being able to order passengers out of vehicles and the sweeping powers the Supreme Court gave officers this week. The big brains on the high court missed it -- save for Kennedy and Stevens. But it is a middle ground that hundreds of police officers use daily. It's the one where, for routine traffic stops, passengers aren't ordered from cars and the driver is ticketed. In those cases involving flight or some other indication a crime has been committed, officers have ordered passengers from vehicles.

That was precisely the situation that led to the current Supreme Court case. In 1994, a Maryland State trooper saw a car speeding down Interstate 95. He chased it and ordered passenger Jerry Lee Wilson out when the driver stopped. A packet of crack cocaine dropped from Wilson's lap when he got out. Instead of taking his punishment like a man, Wilson tried to hide behind his Fourth Amendment rights.

Had the driver simply stopped instead of having the state trooper chase him, it's doubtful Wilson ever would have been ordered to get out of the car. Police haven't given statistics, but it's probable 99 percent of police stops don't involve the officer ordering passengers out of the car. We now have to depend on police officers' discretion not to abuse the power the Seven Simpletons on the Supreme Court have so cavalierly handed them.

But the real villain here is Jerry Lee Wilson, who messed it up for all of us. Thanks a lot, Jer.

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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