High court's term heavy on `police drama'

Justices' docket crowded with cases on individuals' Fourth Amendment rights

October 05, 2003|By HEARST NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON - Already weighing the fate of the new federal campaign finance law, the U.S. Supreme Court starts a new term tomorrow that is expected to focus on law-and-order topics, including the rights of suspects and the limits on police searches.

"The court's term will resemble a police drama at times," said Julie R. O'Sullivan, a law professor at Georgetown University.

In a sense, the 2003-2004 term began last month when the court heard arguments on 12 cases involving the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, championed by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

The court, heeding the law's demand for a quick review, scheduled the unusual hearing on whether the statute - which was signed into law in March - violates free speech rights. Both supporters and opponents of the law expect that the court will decide the case soon, before the 2004 presidential campaign begins in earnest.

The court also has scheduled 60 other cases in the new term, including disputes involving the separation of church and state, reverse age discrimination and environmental protection. The court typically hears about 75 to 80 cases in a term, which extends from the first Monday in October until the end of June.

A number of the cases involve police searches of cars and homes, giving the justices an opportunity to define the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment's protection against illegal search and seizure. During the term, the justices will decide:

How long police executing a search warrant must wait after knocking on a door and hearing no response before they can break into someone's home.

Whether police can arrest everyone in a vehicle or only its owner when they find drugs.

If police can search a suspect's parked vehicle when the person arrested was recently in it.

Whether police can set up checkpoints to seek information about a recent crime, then arrest drivers for unrelated wrongdoing.

The justices also will delve into one of law enforcement's most famous phrases: "You have the right to remain silent."

In four cases involving Miranda warnings - the court's 37-year-old requirement that police officers must warn suspects of their rights before interrogations - the justices will tell police how far they can go to get answers from suspected criminals, and let trial courts know when they must bar confessions or evidence that violates the Miranda rule.

In a pair of cases, the court will examine a common police tactic known as the "two-step interrogation."

Under this process, police intentionally question a suspect without giving the person a Miranda warning. If the suspect divulges incriminating information, the police quickly inform the person of his or her rights, then proceed to ask the suspect the same questions.

Because suspects often are unaware that their first statement cannot be used against them in court, they repeat their incriminating testimony under the mistaken belief that they have confessed.

"Police are trained to try and trick people into giving statements without their Miranda warnings," said Susan Herman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who says the two-step interrogation is taught to police candidates in many states, including California.

In a Colorado case, the Supreme Court will examine whether physical evidence discovered because of statements from suspects who were not given their Miranda rights can be used in court.

The issue of separation of church and state arises in a Washington state case involving a college student who was denied a state tuition grant because he was a theology major.

Joshua Davey, who attended Northwest College in Kirkland, Wash., argues that a state regulation that makes theology majors ineligible for state-funded scholarships discriminates against religion in violation of the First Amendment.

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