Fourth Amendment

Unreasonable Searches Are Unconstitutional—and Common

Justice Dept. report on Baltimore Police shows little respect for the Fourth Amendment.

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Loretta Lynch
Lloyd Fox/TNS/Newscom

If there is anything on which Americans across the political spectrum agree, it is the inviolability of the Constitution. It is our national scripture, invoked by all and rejected by none.

Conservatives attending the first tea party rallies in 2009 often waved copies of the document. The most memorable moment of the recent Democratic National Convention was when the father of a Muslim U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq demanded of Donald Trump, "Have you even read the United States Constitution?"

But one portion of our national charter has eroded to the point of invisibility: the Fourth Amendment. It says, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." In much of America, that guarantee is an empty promise.

The latest evidence came in a report on police practices in Baltimore, issued on Aug. 10 by the U.S. Department of Justice after an investigation spurred by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. It documents that the city's law enforcement officers operate with virtually no regard for the Fourth Amendment.

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that cops may stop someone when they have reasonable grounds to suspect criminal activity and, if they have reasonable grounds to think the person is armed, may frisk him lightly to detect weapons. They may not stop anyone they please, and they may not vigorously search a citizen's clothing and body without a good reason.

The court intended to empower police only within strict limits. It emphasized, "No right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others, unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law."

But the Justice Department found that in Baltimore, police routinely stop people on the street without reasonable suspicion, conduct physical searches that lack adequate grounds and exceed legal limits, and arrest people without justification. Each of these practices is more than a mistake: It is a violation of fundamental liberties at the heart of what it means to be an American.

The usual assumption is that cops can be trusted to know who's a bad guy and who's not. But of the more than 300,000 pedestrian stops that occurred over a 5 1/2-year span, the report notes, only 3.7 percent led to an arrest or citation—and many of those were later dropped.

Thousands of innocent citizens were inconvenienced, humiliated and deprived of their freedom. Some were repeatedly victimized; one middle-aged African-American man was stopped 30 times and never charged. Police often arrest citizens for merely standing on a public street near city property—which is not illegal.

They expose some victims to grievous indignities. After one adolescent filed a complaint alleging that a cop pulled down his pants on the street, he told investigators, the same cop later "pushed the teenager against a wall, pulled down his pants and grabbed his genitals."

The Justice Department confirmed that one driver had to remove her shirt in public—and "the officer then pulled down the woman's underwear and searched her anal cavity." She was not charged.

All this would be bad enough if it were unique to Maryland. But similar abuses have been documented in city after city. In 2013, a federal judge found that unconstitutional police stops were "a fact of daily life in some New York City neighborhoods" and that the department exhibited "deliberate indifference" to these violations.

A 2011 Justice Department investigation found cops in New Orleans "engage in a pattern of stops, searches, and arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment." In 2014, it found Cleveland police guilty of regularly "using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment." Last year, the same type of conduct was documented in Ferguson, Missouri.

These systematic abuses go on partly because their biggest effect is on blacks and Hispanics, whose treatment often gets little attention. Another reason they persist is that there is no simple remedy when cops trample on the Fourth Amendment rights of innocent people. Evidence gathered through illegal searches can be thrown out in court—but that helps only victims who are prosecuted, which most are not.

The Fourth Amendment is just one of the provisions the framers devised to keep Americans free. But they seem to have written it in disappearing ink.

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  1. People use the constitution the way religious people use the scripture: you’re a bad, bad person if you don’t think it says what they tell you it says.

    1. +1 Elmer Gantry

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  2. I live in Thailand, where there have been something like 21 charters/constitutions since 1932. In the US, there has been one since 1787. Sounds good until you realize that the one US constitution has been reinterpreted and/or selectively ignored throughout its history.

    1. True – the actual written words/meaning of the constitution have become irrelevant.

  3. How is unreasonable defined?

    1. Unreasonable? Ha! If the cops want to search, then it must be reasonable. If you disagree then you’re soft on crime.

    2. FYTW ain’t a good enough reason for ya?

    3. BINGO!
      Millions (billions) of dollars have changed hands in the “judicial system” to try to determine the meaning of a term that has no objective definition.
      What is unreasonable to some is reasonable to others.
      The SCOTUS allows road-blocks (“sobriety checkpoints”) that have a much lower percentage of “success” when compared to the number of people not permitted to go about their travels, unhindered. Why should a brief conversation with a LEO, on the street be any different?
      Not to mention that this DOJ is such a racialist bunch of cretins, that to take any “finding” seriously shows a complete lack of understanding of what they are trying to accomplish. Hint: it ain’t more freedom for the law-abiding.

  4. If there is anything on which Americans across the political spectrum agree, it is the inviolability of the Constitution. It is our national scripture, invoked by all and rejected by none.

    Bull fucking shit. When presidential candidates can flat out say that the government has a right to infringe on the constitution however it sees fit, and still maintain their popularity (such as it is), that seems clear evidence that few people actually care much about the constitution anymore.

    1. This. It’s been a trope for decades that some horrible person can get acquitted on a Constitutional “technicality” and that that’s terrible.

    2. Beat me to it, but I was going to just call bullshit and leave it at that.

    3. This. I kept reading to the next paragraph expecting that to be followed by, “LOLZ!!! Just fucking kidding; Americans are willing to sell out on the Constitution in an instant if it means getting what they want.”

      “But one portion of our national charter has eroded to the point of invisibility: the Fourth Amendment.” I appreciate the explanation to clarify that he was referring to the 4th Amendment. Otherwise, I might have made the mistake of thinking that it referred to the 1st Amendment. Or 2nd. Or 5th. Or 6th. Or 8th. Or 9th. Or 10th. Or……………

  5. Damn, I actually agree with most of what you said here, Steve. You still suck though.

    1. Steve is a slavering supporter of the candidate that makes no bones about her intention to strip the bill of rights of any meaning. We will see how much cheering he does for her if she makes good o n her promise to rape the first and second amendments.

    2. When the first paragraph is a 100% lie, assume that everything that follows is pure, undistilled Chapman.

  6. Each of these practices is more than a mistake: It is a violation of fundamental liberties at the heart of what it means to be an American.

    Fortunately for law enforcement this is no penalty attached.

  7. it is the inviolability of the Constitution. It is our national scripture, invoked by all and rejected by none.

    You’re joking, right? The one thing that both sides agree on is that it needs to go away because it gets in the way of massive surveillance, police doing “what they need to” for any imaginary situation, shutting up journalists, and confiscating guns.

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  9. “It is our national scripture, invoked by all and rejected by none.”

    Paid lip service by all would be more like it.

  10. “If there is anything on which Americans across the political spectrum agree, it is the inviolability of the Constitution. It is our national scripture, invoked by all and rejected by none.”

    Somebody at Reason Staff owes me a new laptop.

  11. “If there is anything on which Americans across the political spectrum agree, it is the inviolability of the Constitution”

    You’re kidding, right? Liberals and statists have long been complaining about that ancient relic written by white slaveowners. Law and order conservatives would rather use it for fish wrap than comply with the edicts of 4A.

    Today, the Constitution is a menu. Choose the parts you want, when you want them, ignore the rest. And, on your next visit, choose differently.

  12. If there is anything on which Americans across the political spectrum agree, it is the inviolability of the Constitution. It is our national scripture, invoked by all and rejected by none.

    This is sarcasm, right?

  13. “The Constitution? Are you serious?”?Nancy Pelosi

  14. RE: Unreasonable Searches Are Unconstitutional?and Common

    The time is past due to put aside the ugly and unnecessary Fourth Amendment. For too long, our police, both public and secret, have been hamstrung by this archaic document, the US Constitution. If we are to put our faith in either Trump the Grump or Heil Hitlary, we must abandon all the principles set forth by those old white males, the Founding Fathers. We must now progress to the point where we can become the new Soviet man and eliminate all vestiges of freedom, financial independence and personal responsibility, and a good place to start is to allow The State to search our personal possessions at will anytime they want, anywhere they want. These warrantless searches will weed those who believe in The State from the doubters. Once discovered, the non-believers will receive their just and humane punishments from the merciful and kind prison guards in their local gulags and from those beneficent members of the firing squad. Once these parasites are removed, then The Glorious People’s Revolution will finally become a reality. But The State must have the blessing of the near illiterate masses to search their personal affects for counter-revolutionary materials if we want a true proletariat paradise.

  15. I would challenge anyone to dispute that what DoJ is condemning in Baltimore is SOP everywhere else.

    1. They are just sofa king stupid as to get caught. Just add their name to list of other cities that are under DOJ oversight.
      Over about 4 years Chicago cops cost the taxpayers, who were already paying them to do this, over 210 million dollars in judgements in 655 cases. Here’s a listing of who did and what it cost. http://projects.chicagoreporte…..arch/cases
      Any wonder that soldiers are shooting at police?

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