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A Rare Roberts Court Victory for the Fourth Amendment

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Apparently, the ability of the War On (some classes of people who use some) Drugs to act as a solvent in which the Fourth Amendment vanishes has some limits. Today, the Supreme Court ruled that a search of an automobile after the defendant was secured (in this case, for his arrest for driving with a suspended license) for evidence of an unrelated crime (in this case, the police found cocaine, but obviously didn’t need to search his car for evidence that he had been driving without a valid license) was unjustified. The Court did not overrule New York v. Belton — the case which has generally been read to permit the police very wide discretion to conduct searches of automobiles without probable cause — but did argue that it should be read much more narrowly than it has been. Since in Belton the suspects were actually arrested on a drug charge, the case is quite easily distinguished. Today’s case will at least prevent the police from using unrelated minor offenses to justify drug searches without probable cause. Under today’s ruling, car searches without probable cause are valid only “if it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle” or if the suspect might be able to access the car for weapons.

The other interesting thing about the case is the lineup of the Court’s 5-4 decision. This won’t come as a surprise to you if you have a better grasp of the issues than Ann Althouse or Stuart Taylor, but this case presents yet another example of the fact that Alito and Roberts aren’t as bad as Scalia and Thomas — they’re worse. Both Scalia and Thomas showed their sporadic libertarian streak today, joining Stevens’s opinion (with Scalia even writing a concurrence suggesting that, if anything, the Court’s opinion didn’t go far enough.) Alito, on the other hand, wrote a dissent arguing for a bright-line rule that would permit any search of an automobile incident to arrest (irrespective of whether or not there is any threat to an arresting officer’s safety or of whether the search was relevant to the arresting offense.) He was joined by Roberts and (a little more surprisingly, although he’s pretty conservative on most civil liberties issues) Kennedy. Breyer, always a wet on civil liberties issues, also argued that the search should be justified on stare decisis grounds.

The only thing I can say for Alito’s dissent is that his claim that the majority’s analysis of Belton is artificially narrow has some merit; I wouldn’t have objected to overruling it explicitly. But given Alito’s history of, ah, “minimalist” treatment of precedents, he’s the last person in the world who can complain about it. And as Scalia says, even if one agrees that the Court’s holding “does not provide the degree of certainty I think desirable in this field,” Alito’s alternative “opens the field to what…are plainly unconstitutional searches—which is the greater evil.”

[X-Posted to TAPPED.]

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