Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sorry Justice Roberts, but you're wrong

What am I talking about?

As reported by the Washington Post, the US Supreme Court in Virginia v. Harris recently decided not to take the appeal in a case where the Virginia Supreme Court overturned a drunk driving conviction because the arresting officer didn't actually see the driver breaking any laws, but instead pulled him over because of an anonymous tip that he was driving while intoxicated. Although many states have ruled the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure is not violated by allowing an officer to pull a driver over based solely on an anonymous tip, there are several states that have ruled such action is unconstitutional. Virginia is one of them. It ruled that without the officer seeing some erratic behavior on the part of the driver, he lacked a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to warrant the stop. Without that reasonable suspicion, the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure is violated.

In a dissent to the Court's decision not to take the appeal (the majority did not give a reason for its decision, which is common), Justice Roberts said: "The decision below commands that police officers following a driver reported to be drunk do nothing until they see the driver actually do something unsafe on the road — by which time it may be too late."

It's a tempting argument, one that appeals to the emotions and seems, on its face, logical. But in my humble opinion, it's wrong.

Of course we'd all like to see drunken drivers removed from the road, especially before anyone gets hurt, or worse, killed. Anyone who has been a victim, or knows someone who has been a victim, of a drunk driver understands the life-changing -- often life-ending -- damage so easily done by a drunk behind the wheel of a car.

But there are many wrongs we'd like to stop before they happen; there are many crimes being committed behind closed doors that we may never know of because, in this country, at least, the cops aren't allowed to enter someone's home or other "private" space solely because some anonymous person told them a crime was being committed. It's a slippery slope. If a police officer can pull someone over solely based on an anonymous tip, what's to stop authorities from arguing that they should be able to enter someone's home based on a similar sort of tip? Justice Roberts says drunk driving is different, but why? How is it any different? And if you think this is okay, you'd better beware your neighbor who's mad at you because your dog got loose on his lawn, or that co-worker who doesn't like that you got the promotion before he did. Or what about your wife's ex-husband? Maybe he still hasn't gotten over the split, and he wants revenge. Are you worried about your children being on the internet, and how the kids "flame" each other over the smallest slight? Imagine a teen who realizes she can create havoc simply with a brief, anonymous call to the cops.

There are those who subscribe to the argument that as long as you're doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about. I beg to differ. If this were the case, we could toss out the Fourth Amendment altogether. Spend some time talking to folks who come from other countries that lack the protections we have, who never know when authorities might be banging on their door, barging in to take a look around for no other reason than they "received an anonymous tip," and I think you'll come to understand the importance of this particular constitutional protection.