Supreme Court bans squeezing of carry-ons in drug searches

Justices' ruling applies to closed bags stored overhead aboard buses

April 18, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Adopting a constitutional "no-squeeze" rule yesterday, the Supreme Court barred police and federal agents who are looking for drugs from manipulating luggage that is stored in overhead compartments on buses.

The ruling applied immediately only to the bags of bus passengers, but the constitutional principles that led to the ruling made it appear that it also would apply to carry-on items placed overhead in trains -- but probably not in airliners, legal experts said.

By a vote of 7-2, the court ruled that the Constitution's guarantee of privacy for private property protects passengers' closed bags from being squeezed by officers trying to detect what is inside.

The ruling only covers closed luggage, since the contents of open bags would not be considered to be private under the Constitution.

"Travelers are particularly concerned about their carry-on luggage," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said, because those bags often contain personal items that passengers "prefer to keep close at hand."

Rehnquist conceded that stored luggage is likely to be handled by other passengers or bus company employees as they make room for other bags. But, he added, the owners of the bags do not expect anyone "will feel the bag in an exploratory manner."

When that kind of "physical manipulation" is done by a police officer, the court concluded, that is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches by police.

The decision overturned the drug possession conviction of an Arkansas man, Steven Dewayne Bond. A passenger on a Greyhound bus bound from California to Little Rock in 1997, Bond put a green carry-on canvas bag above his seat.

At a Border Patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas, a border agent went through the bus to check passengers' immigration status. As he came back down the bus aisle, he squeezed the soft luggage in the compartment. In Bond's bag, the officer felt a "brick-like" object that turned out to be illegal methamphetamine.

That was used to prosecute Bond. The decision in Bond's favor means he is likely to get a new trial, without the methamphetamine available as evidence.

The chief justice's opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented.

The ruling appeared likely to apply to any similar luggage-squeezing actions that police might try on trains, since the legal nature of that method of travel is so similar to bus travel.

But, because airline passengers generally have to undergo much more extensive inspection of their carry-on luggage before they board, their constitutional right of privacy appears to be less than those of bus and train travelers.

In a second 7-2 decision, the court ruled that individuals injured or relatives of persons killed by train-vehicle collisions at railroad crossings cannot sue for damages under state law if the crossing had warning signals paid for partly with federal funds.

When federal funds have been spent on crossing warning devices, that means those devices need only satisfy federal safety standards, and thus claims based on state law cannot be pursued in court, the justices decided.

The case involved a fatal collision at a crossing in rural Tennessee in 1993. The widow of a man killed in that crash sought to sue Norfolk Southern Railway under state law, claiming the railroad had put up inadequate warning signs.

A jury awarded the woman $430,765 against the railroad. That verdict was overturned yesterday.

In a series of orders in new cases, the court reached these results: It agreed to rule on the constitutionality of state voter-approved measures, enacted in nine states, that seek to punish candidates for Congress for failing to do enough to get term limits imposed on members of the House and Senate.

These so-called "scarlet letter" laws require that ballots label candidates for having "disregarded voters' instructions on term limits" if they do not actively promote term limits, or do not sign a pledge to do so.

In a decision due by early summer, the court will rule on the validity of those laws in a Missouri case.

The justices agreed to decide whether a 1990 federal law protecting disabled individuals from discrimination can be enforced against state governments through private lawsuits in federal or state court.

If the court, in an Alabama case, decides to block such lawsuits, state governments could be required to obey the disability rights law only if the federal government directly enforces the law -- unlikely except in the most serious cases, because the government lacks resources to monitor all such incidents.

The ruling in that case is also likely by early summer.

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