New Castle News


March 6, 2013

Our Opinion: High court must respect spirit of Fourth Amendment

NEW CASTLE — How much power are you prepared to give government in order to combat crime?

Do you want to allow authorities to listen in on phone conversations — including yours?

Do you want them to read emails — including yours?

Do you want to grant them the power to monitor the travel of all motor vehicles — including yours?

Modern technology creates the potential for all manner of oversight by law enforcement. The only thing standing in the way is the Bill of Rights and the determination of Americans to live by it.

In particular, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is designed to protect citizens from warrantless searches and seizures. At the time of the nation’s founding, it was meant to prohibit authorities from entering a home or seizing private papers on the off chance of finding a crime.

Other amendments deal with criminal-related matters, describing proper procedures and generally restricting the power of government. It’s clear the founders — who had just fought a war for independence — were concerned about the ability of unlimited government to run roughshod over individuals.

The quaint language of the Fourth Amendment has been interpreted by the courts to deal with technologicial advancements. For instance, warrants are needed to eavesdrop on telephone conversations or to obtain email records in a criminal investigation.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in criminal investigations in recent years deals with DNA analysis to identify suspects. It’s seen as a foolproof method of either linking suspects to crimes or clearing them.

Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is grappling with a difficult case that deals with DNA. At issue is a rape in Maryland, where DNA evidence has linked a man to the crime.

But lower courts have thrown out the evidence, because the man’s DNA was collected when he was arrested for — but not convicted of — a felony. Subsequently, the conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor.

The suspect’s attorneys say the DNA evidence should not be admissible because it was collected before he was convicted of any crime and the related felony charge was dimissed. On the other side are prosecutors who say that without the DNA, there is no way to charge someone they say is a rapist.

It’s a difficult issue, and during arguments, justices were troubled by the scope of this case. One asked if government could be given the authority to take DNA samples during routine traffic stops.

And that’s the point. More than 200 years ago, America decided to limit the power of government to monitor and control individuals. It’s a value the Supreme Court must continue to respect — even if it means letting some guilty people go free.

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