Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Supreme Court once more grinding its heel into individual rights

It is fascinating to note that there is a certain schizophrenia in regard to individual rights in this country, or rather concerning what rights should be protected. The right to own guns, the right of Sean Hannity to tell the most outrageous lies and get paid millions for it, the right of anti-government, anti-tax fanatics to believe that a civil society can exist without some recognition of communal responsibility. On the other hand, the protection of the citizen against law enforcement power has been steadily eroded over the past decade or two. There are people who claim that this is necessary, because police and prosecutors are unnecessarily “handcuffed” by being forced to respect the annoying rights of suspects.

But let’s face some reality. The vast majority of people who come into unwanted contact with police have not actually done anything wrong, or at least nothing that should land them in jail. Yet police frequently abuse their authority even in cases where a person has done nothing at all, except maybe walking down a sidewalk. People don’t seem to realize this, but it is illegal for police to demand your photo ID merely on whim; you have to be suspected of a crime, or about to commit one—and police cannot cast “suspicion” on you based on invention or personal prejudice and stereotype. Yet police get away with this violation of civil rights all the time; filing complaints against officers engaged in it doesn’t stop it, as I’ve discovered. Especially given the recent immigration laws passed in Arizona and Georgia, simple racial profiling is sufficient to excuse to violate an individual’s rights, and it is allowed because the majority white population is not meant to be discomfited by it.

So why should we be surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court has stunningly, by an 8-1 vote, further eroded individual rights but allowing police to break into a person domain without a warrant if they knock on that person’s door first, so long as they have a “suspicion” that the person is destroying “evidence.” The remarkable thing about this case was that police in Lexington, Kentucky were looking for a “suspect” who they witnessed in a drug deal in a parking lot. They followed him in an apartment, but became confused and broke into someone else’s apartment, supposedly because they heard what they believed was someone scuffling around. The police did find marijuana and cocaine, but not the original suspect. The Kentucky Supreme Court threw-out the man’s conviction because the police had not legally obtained the evidence; since he was not the suspect the police were after and they had not observed him doing anything illegal, the police were required to present probably cause before a judge and obtain a warrant before breaking into his abode.

Prosecutors and police, however, don’t like playing by the rules of right to privacy. And neither does the U.S. Supreme Court, which has just handed down a ruling that allows warrantless searches of anyone, if police merely “suspect” that someone is doing something illegal behind closed doors, like “destroying evidence” even if they visually cannot justify it. Far-right, Scalia mini-me Justice Alito (you know Republicans can count on the Italians to prove they are more maliciously paranoid than the Anglos), explained the ruling with this completely incomprehensible statement: “The police did not create the exigency by engaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment. Warrantless entry to prevent the destruction of evidence is reasonable and thus allowed." Huh??? How can this be interpreted in any other way but a police officer can simply walk to anyone’s door without probable cause, knock on the door, and break in if he only “suspects” something illegal is going? Police who think all minorities are “criminals” will have a field day with this. If this isn’t a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, then we have people on the bench who have utter contempt for—or do not understand—the Bill of Rights. Alito suggested that all that mattered was that police had acted “lawfully.” The question is what “law” is he talking about? Police are allowed to break into homes if they hear screams or see a suspect running into one, but nothing says that just because they hear anything and choose to apply any definition to it that suits them, does not mean they can simply bust into someone’s home after only knocking on the door and saying something; maybe the occupant is having sex with the neighbor’s wife, or the dog got excited and knocked over a lamp.

Alito implied that the defendant could have simply sat silently or demanded a warrant. Oh, that’s going to stop police from breaking in—armed with this ruling? All they have to do is “imagine” they hear something, which is what they typically do anyways when they want to harass someone. No one should be fooled by this ruling; its impact goes far beyond the drug issue. This ruling invites virtually unlimited abuse by police under any number of scenarios beyond illicit drugs. And as we discovered in the John T. Williams case here in Seattle, police officers will lie even when there are witnesses and video evidence that directly contradicts their story; with the absence of such contradictory proofs, the public has shown that it will believe anything the police tell them. Under this ruling, police can evade warrants and probable cause, and simply “hear” what they want to hear, and break and enter at will.

And this is only the most recent example of the Supreme Court’s showing considerable favoritism toward law enforcement at the expense of individual rights. In another recent ruling, Miranda rights were further eroded when a bare majority of the court ruled that even when a suspect refused to acknowledge either verbally or in writing that he understood his “rights,” the police could still use anything he said as evidence. Such was the case in the 2000 Michigan arrest that led to the ruling; detectives grilled a suspect for nearly three hours with no result, until one of the interrogators asked the suspect “Do you believe in God?” After replying in the affirmative, the interrogator asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” The suspect again answered in the affirmative, but after several hours, it was likely he had heard another innocuous “trick” question and didn’t understand its import, which he would have been alerted to if he had an attorney present. And in 2006, the court ruled that police armed with a warrant can smash into a person’s home any time of day or night without announcing themselves—even if it is the wrong home.

Why should we be concerned about this? Currently, the Justice Department is investigating the SPD and the Sheriff Joe Arpaio for civil rights abuses in their jurisdictions; instead of putting a brake on such abuses, the court is increasing the likelihood of more abuses by giving them the protection of "law." Furthermore, because for the individual who cannot afford million-dollar defense attorneys, the full weight of resources of law enforcement and the court system is weighed and arrayed against them. Police can and do fabricate evidence and testimony, and prosecutors can and do suppress evidence and testimony favorable to defendants.

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