supreme ct


by Steven Greenhut ,  |  published on February 25, 2013

The Supreme Court’s recent decisions regarding police powers were mixed, thus offering a reminder to civil libertarians that they cannot depend upon the high court to protect the public from unwarranted government intrusions.

“The U.S. Supreme Court handed police one victory and one loss on Tuesday,” reported National Public Radio. “In one decision, the justices limited the power of police to detain people who are away from their homes when police conduct a search. And in a second case, the justices ruled that drug-sniffing dogs don’t have to get every sniff right in order for a search to be valid.”

NPR’s ballgame metaphor hints at reality: Whenever the authorities win, the public loses some of its personal liberties. The recent police “loss” came in Bailey v. United States. Police had a warrant to search the apartment of a Long Island, N.Y., parolee, Chunon Bailey. Unaware of the impending search, Bailey drove away. Police followed him, stopped him three-quarters of a mile from his home and then detained him.

The court answered this simple question: Does a search warrant apply only to the location of the warrant or does it give police an open-ended document that allows them to detain and search people practically anywhere?

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 6-3 decision, concluded: “The categorical authority to detain incident to the execution of a search warrant must be limited to the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched.” Kennedy concluded that a failure to put limits on a search warrant would “violate the usual rules for arrest based on probable cause.”

The majority opinion seems obvious and sensible. A search warrant authorizes police to search a particular place, not cast a net miles away from the location. The court’s odd minority coalition – liberal Stephen Breyer and conservatives Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – was disturbed that the decision did not provide police officers with a “bright yellow line.” They argued that definition of “immediate vicinity” was not understandable enough. Yet, that hazy line seems better than the bright one that Breyer, Thomas and Alito prefer – giving police unlimited power to detain a search-warrant subject anywhere.

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