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Opening Arguments

Risk 'n frisk

There's been a lot of chatter on libertarian and libertarian-leaning blogs about the "loss or rights" in this Supreme Court decision:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled in an Arizona case that redefines when police officers can pat down people they suspect are armed and dangerous.

The high-court ruling reverses a 2007 decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals that a Tucson-area police officer went too far when she frisked the passenger of a car during a routine traffic stop - even though she found a prohibited weapon.

I'm not so sure. It was a unanimous decision, which is sometimes a sign that the court got it right and sometimes a sign that we should all go into hiding for awhile. In this case, I think it's the former. The police pulled over a car in a known gang neighborhood because the car's registration was suspended. The passenger in question, in back, was wearing gang colors and holding a police scanner. As one of the commenters notes, he might as well have been carrying a "Search Me!" sign. 

In such cases, we always hope the courts will balance the authorities' need to be as safe as possible while doing their necessary jobs and the citizens' right to be left alone in the absence of reasonable suspicion. The court had earlier ruled that those stopped by police are technically in custody until released by the police, so searching someone to ensure police safety during the stop doesn't seem outrageous. If this ruling had given police carte blanche to stop people without cause -- therefore being able to search anyone without cause -- it would be different. But the ruling didn't do that.


Tue, 01/27/2009 - 12:57pm

Disclaimer: I haven't read the facts of the case, and I represent a Sheriff's Department and have been developing a bias in favor of the police.

But, I suspect the real fear is that the police are going to use real and alleged violations of ticky-tacky traffic laws to go fishing for evidence of something more substantial.

Since many of our Founding Fathers were smugglers under the old British regime, I tend to think that the intent of the Constitution was to require the police to have the goods on someone before they were allowed to hassle them much.

That said, I doubt the sky is falling.