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U.S. Supreme Court rules on searches of passengers on public transportation.
June 18, 2002 10:00 AM   Subscribe

U.S. Supreme Court rules on searches of passengers on public transportation. In a decision that could aid the government's anti-terrorism efforts, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police can question passengers on buses and trains and search for evidence without informing them that they can refuse.
posted by Ty Webb (43 comments total)

 
Boy, the Supremes are really pro-government these days, aren't they?

Oy.
posted by me3dia at 10:09 AM on June 18, 2002


So -- we have the Miranda law to guarantee that accused criminals are informed of their rights, but if you're not an accused criminal, but just minding your own business on a bus, you're on your own. Nice.
posted by ook at 10:09 AM on June 18, 2002


I thought "Information Superhighway" was the most overused catchphrase ever, until this "War on Terrorism" thing came along. Stop. Please stop.
posted by some chick at 10:14 AM on June 18, 2002


Souter (in dissent) wrote. "The commonplace precautions of air travel have not, thus far, been justified for ground transportation however"

So, we should wait until someone starts ramming buses full of explosives into buildings before we make these searches legal then?
posted by revbrian at 10:25 AM on June 18, 2002


And so kids, remember these two rules.

(1) Deny everything. If they really knew, they wouldn't be asking.

(2) Never give your permission to the police for anything. If they have to ask you, then you must have a choice.

Is that what Nancy meant by Just Say No?
posted by norm29 at 10:27 AM on June 18, 2002


So, we should wait until someone starts ramming buses full of explosives into buildings before we make these searches legal then?

Why just buses and public transit? These same issues apply to a bmw or a delivery truck. In fact they even apply to individuals walking down the street. Just ask an Israeli.

Welcome to the top of the slippery slope.
posted by srboisvert at 10:36 AM on June 18, 2002


I'm not a privacy advocate so the slope doesn't particularly concern me.
posted by revbrian at 10:39 AM on June 18, 2002


I'm not a privacy advocate so the slope doesn't particularly concern me.
That is such a sick thing to say. Now I cannot remember if I like you or not.
posted by thirteen at 10:42 AM on June 18, 2002


A concern I have is not only that passengers should be informed they can refuse a search, but that peace officers must know that a passenger can refuse a search. If there is no requirement for a peace officer to inform a person of his/her option to deny a search, then how likely is it that a peace officer would be aware that a person even has such an option? It is my understanding peace officers become unhappy when a person does not do what he/she is told.
posted by quam at 10:50 AM on June 18, 2002


know your rights (pdf) from the aclu. apologies to the clash.
posted by lescour at 11:08 AM on June 18, 2002


How (not) to talk to the police
posted by magullo at 12:10 PM on June 18, 2002


It is my understanding peace officers become unhappy when a person does not do what he/she is told.

understatement of the century. Just ask Rodney King.
posted by schlaager at 12:29 PM on June 18, 2002


Common sense reason this is bad law:

Terrorists will know they have the right to refuse a search. The only people hit by this law are law-abiding citizens.
posted by fleener at 12:38 PM on June 18, 2002


One of my favorite professors used to say, "When a cop tells you to stop, keep on walking. When you hear the cop cock the hammer on his revolver, then you stop."

Seriously, these cases all turn on whether or not the suspect has been seized by the peace officer. The established rule is this: "Even when law enforcement officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, they may pose questions, ask for identification, and request consent to search luggage—provided they do not induce cooperation by coercive means. If a reasonable person would feel free to terminate the encounter, then he or she has not been seized."

The problem, of course, is that this reasonable-person standard does not reflect the knowledge of ordinary laypersons, and the Court refuses to require peace officers to inform citizens of their rights: "The Court has rejected in specific terms the suggestion that police officers must always inform citizens of their right to refuse when seeking permission to conduct a warrantless consent search. Nor do this Court’s decisions suggest that even though there are no per se rules, a presumption of invalidity attaches if a citizen consented without explicit notification that he or she was free to refuse to cooperate. Instead, the Court has repeated that the totality of the circumstances must control, without giving extra weight to the absence of this type of warning. Although Officer Lang did not inform respondents of their right to refuse the search, he did request permission to search, and the totality of the circumstances indicates that their consent was voluntary, so the searches were reasonable."

Of course, there's a simple cure for this decision: Knowledge. Most Americans understand their Miranda rights; they need to understand that they also have rights that attach before they're arrested.
posted by subgenius at 12:58 PM on June 18, 2002


Oops: Link to the case (PDF).
posted by subgenius at 1:01 PM on June 18, 2002


Is it SO terrifying to cooperate with people who are trying to keep you from harm? Is it so difficult to be honest with a cop and say, yes, I was speeding? I did exactly that the other night. Was driving home, late, speeding like a fool, got pulled over, cop asked me if I knew why, I said "Yep, I was speeding." Know what he said in response? Try to slow it down, dude, and be safe getting yourself home. I said thanks, he ran my plates to make sure I wasn't some bank robber on a holiday, and that was that. Look, when I was a reporter, I met dozens, maybe hundreds, of cops, of every rank. 95% of all cops are people who are genuinely interested in helping people and seeing to it that no one gets hurt. I will agree that there are 5% who became cops because they get to shoot at people occasionally, but most of them aren't like that. In overwhelming numbers, they are not interested in violating your civil rights, or hassling you, or beating you. They are interested in helping you, and keeping you and everyone else safe. As a reward for doing that, they get low pay and the opportunity to clean up every hellish mess than comes down the pike (I know, I've seen the pictures). And to get hassled constantly by people who mistakenly believe that getting pulled over is some sort of violation of their rights. People, get over yourselves. You are not so special that cops are singling you out for repression. VERY occasionally, people are actually repressed by the cops. That is absolutely unacceptable, and should be handled very aggressively. But every time someone screams "repression!" when they aren't actually being repressed decreases everyone's willingness to act definitively when real repression occurs.

So try being nice to a cop once in a while. Try saying "Of course you can search me, Officer" when they ask, since you are not a terrorist and subsequently your only real reason for refusing is to be a pain in the ass; try being honest and saying "Yep, I was speeding" when a cop asks you if you know why he pulled you over. A little politeness - they're people just like you and me - goes a long way, especially in light of their otherwise crappy job.

And yes, I know it's your constitutional right to refuse to be searched and to say what you want in in an airplane and all that. Yes, you have a guaranteed constitutional right, backed by the full force of law, the Supreme Court, the ACLU and the Founders, to be a royal pain in the ass. It's your right to do so. But that doesn't mean you have to.
posted by UncleFes at 1:12 PM on June 18, 2002


So try being nice to a cop once in a while.

"No comment, Sir."

Happy?
posted by techgnollogic at 1:44 PM on June 18, 2002


Is it SO terrifying to cooperate with people who are trying to keep you from harm?

Uncle Fes- good thoughtful post, but I think your experience as a reporter covering the police would lead you to a much different conclusion than people who are actually suspected and targeted by the police. From the moment a cop stops to talk to you, no matter how friendly he might seem, he is building a case against you, developing probable cause to arrest you. That's a shitty thing to have to recognize, but it is the legal reality.

I used to have a lot more respect for cops until I started working in the legal field, and saw just how many power tripping assholes we have here in Seattle. Not just a few bad eggs, but a very pervasive atmosphere of belligerence toward citizens. I understand police work is a very tough job, but if they can't handle the gig without messing with the people they are supposed to be serving, I suggest they go to magician's assistant school.
posted by Ty Webb at 1:46 PM on June 18, 2002


Not to cast aspersions on magician's assistants.
posted by Ty Webb at 1:51 PM on June 18, 2002


Try saying "Of course you can search me, Officer" when they ask, since you are not a terrorist and subsequently your only real reason for refusing is to be a pain in the ass

Or maybe I don't like strangers patting me down or going through my personal belongings? What if they want to do a body cavity search? Come into my house and go through my drawers and check out my email archive? Take me to the station for a few hours of interrogation? Should I keep cooperating? It's fine and good to cooperate, but why shouldn't I be allowed to say no? Like you said, I've done nothing wrong.
posted by daveadams at 1:58 PM on June 18, 2002


unfortunately, almost all of the experience i've had with cops has been things like being pulled out of restaraunt, questioned, having my keys taken out of my pocket, and told to sit on the curb until my ID could be checked out. if they had a reason, they didn't tell me.

the 95% you're talking about, UncleFes, i never get to deal with. i do obey most of the laws and have been fortunate that i've only twice been the victim of a crime, so i have little need to deal with a police officer, but when i do, it's not the good ones stopping me as i'm walk down the street and frisking me without permission.

simply, it's not that i'm terrified of being searched or questioned. it's that i've done nothing wrong, and have given no indication that i've done something wrong.
posted by tolkhan at 2:09 PM on June 18, 2002


Terrorists will know they have the right to refuse a search. The only people hit by this law are law-abiding citizens.

Which is exactly why anger at the government is misplaced. Things suck now, and they're going to continue to suck for a long time to come. The government and law enforcement are playing catch-up and faced with a nearly impossible job. I only wish they'd do a little more to inspire our confidence.

This legislation is a byproduct of the kind of terrorism which America is no longer immune to. We're all Israelis now, so get used to looking over your shoulder everytime you're visiting any moderately crowded public place. It's not the police or the government's fault, and it's not them we need to be worried about right now.
posted by joemaller at 2:39 PM on June 18, 2002


tolkhan and daveadams, believe me I know where you're coming from (although dave, a lot of that stuff you describe would require a warrant). I've had shotguns put to my head by cops, had my face ground into the dirt, had handcuffs cracked over my wrist so hard that I couldn't move them for days because of the bruises (I wasn't always the law-and-order type you all know and love). But in general I've learned to give cops, for the most part, the benefit of the doubt. Obviously, your results may vary, but overall, even for the incidents I described above, there was a semi-legit reason for the cops to do what they did, even if it seemed like overkill at the time. And to a man, the cops that jacked me up apologized later.

I guess all's I'm saying is that not every request to take a look at someone's ID and the contents of their pockets is a constitutional challenge, you know? I do it because I know a lot of these guys, and I know the job they do (one I wouldn't want in a million years), so I cut them some slack. I'm not saying you have to roll over and put your butt in the air every time someone in a uniform says "Boo." But in my experience, cops are just trying to get through the jobs of the day; it's got nothing to do with you personally, and a little forbearance not only makes things easier but often as not buys you a little goodwill.
posted by UncleFes at 2:43 PM on June 18, 2002


Try saying "Of course you can search me, Officer" when they ask, since you are not a terrorist and subsequently your only real reason for refusing is to be a pain in the ass

I get your point, and certainly agree that one needn't be unpleasant toward a public servant who, one hopes, is merely trying to do his job. However, it's another step to rolling over and cooperating as a matter of course. There are reasons we have these protections and reasons to curb the common abuses of officers towards (innocent until proven guilty) individuals. It can be quite reasonable to refuse--NOT to be a pain in the ass but because one has the right not to be put upon, forced to comply with inconvenient, humiliating or illegal demands, and the responsibility to draw the line when persons in positions of authority start power-tripping and acting like petty tyrants.
posted by rushmc at 2:47 PM on June 18, 2002


It's not the police or the government's fault, and it's not them we need to be worried about right now.

That second sentiment strikes me as profoundly naive. Just because one must turn to face a new enemy doesn't mean one should turn one's back on a known one*.

(*those who abuse their powers to harrass citizens, or worse, not cops in general)
posted by rushmc at 2:49 PM on June 18, 2002


I'm not a terrorist or even a bad person (arguably), but there are times when it would NOT be in my best interest to let a cop search me. You can be put in jail for almost anything: it's terrifying -- no ID? Dog without an ID?Public Intoxication?

I think Fes is right; it is in your best interest to be nice and say yes sir and no sir, because you are at the mercy of the man with the gun and the handcuffs.
posted by goneill at 2:52 PM on June 18, 2002


I've had shotguns put to my head by cops, had my face ground into the dirt, had handcuffs cracked over my wrist so hard that I couldn't move them for days because of the bruises

That's appalling, and just the sort of violent, macho abuse of power that is glorified on that piece of shit tv show, Cops, which makes me sick every time I flash by it channel surfing. Unless you presented much more of a threat at the time than you are letting on, that sort of treatment is simply inexcusable.

And to a man, the cops that jacked me up apologized later.

Whoo. An apology in one hand and a dollar in the other, and you can buy a cup of coffee (but not at Starbucks). It won't fix your face...or your dignity.
posted by rushmc at 2:54 PM on June 18, 2002


Fes - you shock!
posted by goneill at 2:54 PM on June 18, 2002


it is in your best interest to be nice and say yes sir and no sir,

I agree, but that is very far removed from:

Try saying "Of course you can search me, Officer" when they ask, since you are not a terrorist and subsequently your only real reason for refusing is to be a pain in the ass

which profoundly misunderstands the nature of the right to privacy.
posted by Ty Webb at 2:58 PM on June 18, 2002


I think Fes is right; it is in your best interest to be nice and say yes sir and no sir, because you are at the mercy of the man with the gun and the handcuffs.

Might makes right? Sorry, but I refuse to derive my ethics from a basis of fear. If they want to overstep their authority and harm me when I am posing no threat and acting within my rights, so be it. I will spend as long and as much as it takes to take whatever measures are necessary to see that they are held accountable for it.
posted by rushmc at 2:59 PM on June 18, 2002


We're all Israelis now, so get used to looking over your shoulder everytime you're visiting any moderately crowded public place.
I'd rather work on not being an Israeli. I imagine pulling troops and money out of the Middle East will stop violence here in America far quicker than cheerfully allowing a cop to give me a strip search.
posted by thirteen at 3:06 PM on June 18, 2002


Unless you presented much more of a threat at the time than you are letting on, that sort of treatment is simply inexcusable.

Well, they were a little rough (two of the three things described happened over the course of an hour during the same incident), and there was some extenuating circumstances on my part (which I'd prefer not to go into on such a public forum, email me if you want the Cliff's Notes version), and yeah, apologies weren't much by way of recompense, but at the time it meant more to me than it sounds. An apology from a middle-aged state cop to a 19-year-old punkass who did several extraordinarily stupid things in a row goes a long way.

It was not my intention to shock, just make the point. Please don't hate me :)

profoundly misunderstands the nature of the right to privacy.

I understand it fine, I just pick my battles judiciously and recommend others do as well, since battles like this, although nearly always ending up in the favor of the searched, are usually Pyrrhic victories at best. rushmc is right - fight the real fight here, which is the abuse of authority, not the authority itself.
posted by UncleFes at 3:10 PM on June 18, 2002


I grew up with cops and they are the ones who've always said to refuse to be searched without a warrant. If they want to search my car...which has happened...I've requested that they get a flatbed tow truck and take me and the car down to the station, where we can wait while they get a judge to sign a search warrant.

(I have a bright red sports car, which has attracted some attention when heading out to the ranch, because they assume I'm a drug runner...which seems silly...why would drug runners be driving a flashy car...unless they are *stupid* drug runners.)

To this day, I've never had a cop take me up on the offer. I never backtalk, I never give attitude, I was raised to say "Yes sir and No Sir"...but I'm quite clear on my rights, and no, I'm not going to be searched without a warrant when I have done nothing to enjoin probable cause.
posted by dejah420 at 3:25 PM on June 18, 2002


fes: i was impressed, not disappointed...
posted by goneill at 3:38 PM on June 18, 2002


UncleFes: how curious. My father's a reporter and while he damn sure knows his rights, he treats cops (and similar) with relaxed courtesy. Ma'am and sir and no problem. Something about the job, I guess. But I picked up the habit from him and have found it consistently to be the best way of dealing with cops.

I read about this ruling in the Boston Globe this morning on the subway, which gave it an interesting perspective.
posted by swerve at 6:27 PM on June 18, 2002


At least from the Associated Press copy that I read, this decision had more to do with the war on drugs than the war on terror.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:14 PM on June 18, 2002


if you're pulled over for speeding and the cop asks you to search your car, you may have the constitutional right to refuse, but assuming that you don't have anything incriminating in the car, it just seems like way more trouble than its worth. At the very least, the cop is going to give you a speeding ticket instead of (perhaps) a warning. At worst, he'll tow your car back to the station as dejah describes. Is it really worth it just for the satisfaction of knowing that you've exercised your constitutional rights? i guess i just don't understand what is gained by the whole process. are we worried that they are going to plant drugs in our car? steal our belongings? someone please explain why it is worth the inevitable hassle.
posted by boltman at 7:58 PM on June 18, 2002


What's new about this ruling? Granted I never did too well in crim law & procedure, but I don't think that law enforcement has ever had to tell someone that they didn't have to consent to a search. If a cop wants to search you, s/he will find a "legal" way to do it. Get smart with a cop and a search is nearly guaranteed.

It's really up to the individual to educate themselves in what their rights are. Apparently, the U.S. Constitution is no longer taught in primary schools, so no one is aware of the 4th Amendment. Just politely say "no."

Public transport is not the same as your car or your home. Cops can only search the "wingspan" of your car. In other words, only places where you can reach, basically the entire passenger compartment (keep your contraband in the trunk). But, if you are detained, the cops can do an "inventory" search of your car, which includes the trunk and every other nook and cranny.

Further, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that dog searches are completely legal. That means that if the cops have a drug or bomb dog, they can walk that dog up and down the aisles of buses, planes, trains, etc. and you cannot object. Seems that the use of dogs, especially bomb dogs should be employed more on public transport.

Frankly, if someone is stupid enough to carry drugs on public transport, they deserve to be caught. If someone is carrying explosives, I want them to be caught.
posted by Juicylicious at 7:59 PM on June 18, 2002


As a rule, drug runners are stupid. Incredibly stupid, and almost unimaginably reckless and incapable of judging risk, as are just about every class of criminal (except maybe inside traders and Enron-type dudes). That's the whole problem with 5th Amendment jurisprudence: very smart people (judges) making rules to marginally protect the dumbest people on earth from a large, generally smart and definitely motivated law enforcement community.
posted by MattD at 9:17 PM on June 18, 2002


i guess i just don't understand what is gained by the whole process.

For me, it's the principle of the thing. If they're willing to take probable cause in front of a judge and ask for a warrant, AND the judge grants it, then by all means...search away.

But, if they're just pulling a police state power trip and they don't actually have probable cause, then they shouldn't be trying to intimidate me into giving up my rights as a citizen of this country. If they're not willing to file the paper work, wake up a judge and try to get a warrant, then they're just yanking your chain.

What is gained, for me personally, is a small victory for the rights of myself and my fellow Americans. I refuse to be bullied just because someone has a uniform and shiny boots. I haven't done anything wrong, and I refuse to cower in front of authority figures as though I have. By the same token, like I said, I'm always very polite, I don't come off like a phony lawyer, I just refuse to let them search me or my car without a warrant.
posted by dejah420 at 10:11 PM on June 18, 2002


I haven't done anything wrong, and I refuse to cower in front of authority figures as though I have.

THANK you.
posted by rushmc at 8:16 AM on June 19, 2002


For me, the biggest problem with this less about the constitutional right to refuse a search, than about the fuzzy definition of "coercion" it brings into the courtroom. Anybody who's been in any sort of confrontational situation with a police officer, however innocent, knows that it would take very little effort on the officer's part to 'ask' permission for a search, while making it very clear that the only acceptable answer is "yes." A badge, a uniform, and a gun are very compelling negotiating tactics.

I can identify perfectly well with the defense claim that these guys felt "boxed in" and trapped in the bus seat: if I'd been in the same situation, even knowing my rights, and even without bricks of cocaine strapped to my legs, I can easily see how I could be coerced into consenting to a search even if the officers stayed strictly within the letter of the law. All they'd have to do is stand so that I couldn't get out of the seat without pushing past them, and say "would you take off your coat, please." What are you going to do, climb out the window?

Frankly, if someone is stupid enough to carry drugs on public transport, they deserve to be caught.

This misses the point by a mile. What about all the non-drug-smugglers on the same bus, who had to go through the same routine? What about all the people on other buses that went through the same search process, but didn't happen to have any drug smugglers on board? One of the purposes of civil rights laws is to keep the machinery of justice from restricting the lives of those who aren't breaking the law.
posted by ook at 9:21 AM on June 19, 2002


Great. Just what we need, another reason for people not to take public transportation...
posted by dagnyscott at 7:03 AM on June 20, 2002


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