Friday, June 16, 2006

Supreme Court approves no-knock searches

I generally consider myself a civil liberties partisan. I'm a free-speech fanatic, and my main objections to Gitmo, warrantless wiretapping and the like all have to do with civil liberties.

But I have a hard time getting worked up about yesterday's Supreme Court ruling.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police armed with a warrant can barge into homes and seize evidence even if they don't knock, a huge government victory that was decided by President Bush's new justices....

Dissenting justices predicted that police will now feel free to ignore previous court rulings that officers with search warrants must knock and announce themselves or run afoul of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.

A lot of observers are saying this strips an essential protection from citizens, but I just don't see it. The police have a search warrant, so they've already satisfied the main Constitutional requirement. All this ruling says is that they don't have to knock and then wait 15 to 20 seconds before barging in.

The specifics of this case aren't particularly interesting, either.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said Detroit police acknowledge violating that rule when they called out their presence at a man's door, failed to knock, then went inside three seconds to five seconds later. The court has endorsed longer waits, of 15 seconds to 20 seconds.

"Whether that preliminary misstep had occurred or not, the police would have executed the warrant they had obtained, and would have discovered the gun and drugs inside the house," Scalia wrote.

His point is that inability to use evidence is too high a price to pay for such a minor misstep.

He's right. It's like throwing out a case because prosecutors failed to dot an "i" or cross a "t".

There are a few side risks that need to be addressed, even though I don't consider them reason enough to oppose the ruling:

One is that police will take this as a blanket invitation to break in first and apologize later. That's a reasonable concern; a search warrant should not come with the additional extrajudicial punishment of having to pay for a new door after the police knock it down. But that concern can be addressed separately, and probably will be; expect a small wave of lawsuits that will spell out the boundaries of police behavior now that this ruling is law.

Another risk is more civilian-police violence, as a search that might have gone peacefully turns violent when a surprised homeowner resists the intrusion. That risk and a desire for good community relations may become the main check on police overaggressiveness in this new environment. But it bears watching.

As a side note, much of the uproar came about because the decision overturns 90 years of precedent. Perhaps liberals can now start complaining about "activist judges". At the very least I hope conservatives will shut up about it.

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