- Published on Thursday, 08 May 2008
- Written by Scott Morgan, FYR
This is one of the smartest 4th Amendment decisions I've seen in a while:
The Alaska Court of Appeals on Friday put law enforcement agencies on notice that it would not tolerate "implicitly coercive" search requests during traffic stops. The warning came in the form of a ruling on the case of Susan S. Brown, a driver pulled over on November 24, 2004 allegedly because of the light illuminating her car's rear license plate was dirty.
On that night, Alaska State Trooper Maurizio Salinas never explained to Brown the reason for the stop, nor that he had no intention of issuing a ticket. Instead, Salinas convinced Brown to allow him to search her car and her body -- even though Brown had no warrants and showed no signs of illegal conduct. Salinas testified that his policy was to conduct as many random searches as possible during traffic stops. In this case, Salinas discovered a crack pipe hidden in Brown's coat. Speaking for the unanimous court, Judge David Mannheimer found that such search requests not based upon any reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct abused the rights of motorists.
...Motorists who have been stopped for traffic infractions do not act from a position of psychological independence when they decide how to respond to a police officers request for a search," Mannheimer wrote. "Because of the psychological pressures inherent in the stop, and often because of the motorists' ignorance of their rights, large numbers of motorists guilty and innocent alike accede to these requests." [thenewspaper.com]
We'll have to wait and see whether Alaska's Supreme Court picks up the case, but if allowed to stand, this decision should significantly undermine precisely the type of "fishing expedition" policing that we so vehemently oppose.
This ruling reaches the right conclusion for the right reasons, and provides a helpful example of the 4th Amendment's potency at the state level. When you are stopped by police in your neighborhood, it is not George Bush or the PATRIOT Act that determines whether or not your rights were violated. Each state has its own Bill of Rights and sets its own constitutional standards that must be respected by law enforcement. Those who habitually lament the supposed "death" of the 4th Amendment would do well to familiarize themselves with this concept.
A citizenry that understands and appreciates 4th Amendment rights is more likely to produce and appoint judges who will rule in this way. Thus, while we must recognize and expose the many threats to the 4th Amendment that have emerged in recent years, it is essential that such conversations do not indulge the same sense of defeatism that leads citizens to waive these rights in the first place, when they matter most.