Friday, November 2, 2007

October 24, 2007

There Are Limits Out There Somewhere

In the current political and constitutional climate, it’s easy to forget on occasion that we have some fairly significant protections, at least nominally, within the bill of rights. One of these protections, found in the Fourth Amendment, is the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. That right applies to good folks and bad folks, alike. And it makes everybody uncomfortable.

Earlier this week, three judicial celebrities on the D.C. Circuit (Ginsburg, Sentelle, and Tatel, JJ.) reversed the gun charge conviction of Ronnell Holmes. D.C. police officers saw Holmes visiting with an unsavory member of the opposite sex in a dark alley in the middle of the night. They detained him after a brief foot pursuit, took his car keys from him, handcuffed him, and then, after obtaining his permission, searched his car and found a gun under the front seat. The problem with the government’s case was the decision to take Mr. Holmes’s car keys from him. They weren’t a weapon and they weren’t contraband, so under the caselaw interpreting the Fourth Amendment, the police had no business with them.

The prosecution argued that the taint on the keys issue was mitigated by Holmes’s consent to the search. But the Court held that Holmes’s consent to the search had been coerced, that he’d only agreed to let them search the car (which they located by clicking the little remote unlock button) because he thought it was his only way of avoiding an arrest.

So Holmes, who admitted that he had been offering to pay his female friend for her entertainments, ran away from police when they approached him, and kept a gun under the front seat of his car, goes free. Imagine this though, what if instead of finding a gun under the front seat, the police found a dirty bomb? Same result? If the answer is no, that’s a problem. Isn’t it?

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