Supreme Court provides a push toward tyranny

April 17, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

THE NINE NABOBS of Nincompoopery -- otherwise known as the U.S. Supreme Court -- have done it again. In an April 5 ruling, the justices gave near carte blanche to police to search cars stopped for traffic violations.

They ruled that police could search passengers' possessions, but stopped short of saying passengers themselves could be searched. How noble of them.

In fairness to justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, it should be noted that they dissented from this ruling. The other six -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer -- can all pat themselves on the back for inching the country one step closer to a police state.

That might sound like liberal hysteria, coming from the pen of a conservative. But conservatives are supposed to value individual liberty and stand against government butting into citizens' private lives. Conservatives are supposed to be against an excess of government power. Police are an arm of the government with more potential for abuse of power than any other regulatory agency. A court decision that increases police power is by definition a decision that moves us closer to tyranny.

At a Baltimore County Police Department cadet graduation two years ago, commanders warned the future officers about how much power they had. Department honchos told cadets they have been given powers over citizens no other group of people has, including the power of life and death. Cadets were advised to use that power wisely and not to abuse it.

That might be why Baltimore County police -- a cop organization that takes the Bill of Rights much more seriously than some Supreme Court justices -- has a pamphlet it distributes, advising civilians of their Fourth Amendment rights. The pamphlet explains the cases in which an officer must have a driver's consent to search a car and that an officer must stop a consent search any time the driver says to desist. That pamphlet, with the Supreme Court we have, may soon become obsolete.

That Fourth Amendment stuff -- and those other nettlesome amendments called the Bill of Rights -- make police work hard. In the clash between police power and the Fourth Amendment, some come down hard and fast on the side of police power. Take Scalia's statement from his majority opinion:

"Effective law enforcement would be appreciably impaired without the ability to search a passenger's personal belongings when there is reason to believe contraband or evidence of criminal wrongdoing is hidden in the car."

Add to that judicial justification for a drift toward fascism the comments of a spokesman for the National Association of Police Organizations:

"Officers must be free of unreasonable, confusing and unworkable restrictions on what may be searched."

In other words, ix-nay on the ill-Bay of ights-Ray. Civil liberties, according to the NAPO spokesman, get in the way of "effective" law enforcement. And just what was the "effective" law enforcement involved in this Supreme Court case?

Wyoming police stopped a man, David Young, for speeding in 1995. An officer noticed a syringe visible in the Young's shirt pocket. Young admitted he used the needle to take drugs. The officer searched the car and, noticing passenger Sandra Houghton's purse on the back seat, searched it as well, discovering methamphetamines and unspecified drug paraphernalia. Houghton was charged with drug possession and sentenced to a two- to three-year prison term.

Thus does a minor, almost minuscule victory in the war on drugs turn into a major loss in the concomitant war on our civil liberties. Was it worth this particular ruling?

"Passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property that they transport in cars," Scalia intoned in the majority opinion.

I, as a conservative, have a heightened expectation that agents of the government -- federal, state and local -- mind their own damned business. From one conservative to another, I advise Mr. Justice Scalia to speak for himself in such matters.

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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