Plateless Armor

Posted: May 17, 2011 in Debate, Health, Legal Matters, Politics, Torture

The Supreme Court ruled today in Kentucky v. King today that the Fourth Amendment does not apply in cases of exigent exception. Such exceptions include threat of imminent bodily harm or destruction of evidence. The sticking point is where the police create those exigencies by their own actions. The Court ruled in favor of expanded police powers — yet another chink in the plateless armor of the U.S. Constitution.

My reading is that this is merely a version of the ticking time bomb scenario used to justify torture, though the stakes are considerably lower. The significant details of the Kentucky case (PDF of the decision here) are that, upon chasing a drug buyer/dealer into an apartment complex, the cops smelled marijuana fumes, banged on a door (not knowing which door was correct), heard sounds of rustling and scrambling from inside, proceeded to bust through the door, and entered without warrant. I didn’t read the entire opinion, but it seems obvious to me that awarding increased power to the police in a drug case, when police are often known to use overweening force without much hesitation and sometimes without much accuracy, doesn’t rise to a level of urgency justifying abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.

The war on drugs has been a dogged loser for decades now and has only succeeded in creating a criminal class out of a supply-and-demand dynamic that will not be legislated away any better than was Prohibition. While some actors in the drug trade are driven to violence and desperation, a large portion of them are criminal only in the same sense as those who indulge in underage smoking, drinking, or sex. We tend not to crucify underage smokers or drinkers, but those who obey their innate biological urges prior to the arbitrary age of 18 (or whatever the age of consent may be in various jurisdictions) are often prosecuted and classified as rapists, putting them on life-long sex offender lists. The same insane logic applies to prosecuting recreational drug users as criminals rather than treating the issue as a health problem or epidemic, which it in fact is considering how prevalent recreational drug use is among the public.

The balance in cases of hot pursuit or belligerent resistance is tricky, and nearly every news report and anecdote I read about excessive force employed by police officers against, say, grandmothers or 13-year-old girls is accompanied by mediating details that, if shaped the right way, make tazering an unarmed, wheelchair-bound citizen the right thing to do. Actually, it’s rather easy to construct bogus narratives that make any sort of resistance, principled or otherwise, to the state’s monopoly on use of force the actions of a terrorist. Once in a while, though, I’d like to see the balance weighted clearly in favor of citizens, which is among the chief aims of the Bill of Rights.

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