Florence Reece, wife of a rank-and-file organizer for the old National Miners Union in Harlan County, Kentucky, was at home one day in 1931 when High Sheriff J. H. Blair and his gun-toting “deputies” invaded her home looking for Mrs. Reece’s husband. They poked their rifles into closets, under beds, even into piles of laundry before they left.
Outraged at this invasion of her privacy, Mrs. Reece tore an old calendar from the wall and on its back wrote the verses to one of the truly timeless union songs, “Which Side Are You On?”
Sung to an old hymn tune, the burden of the song is that in Harlan County, Kentucky, nobody can be neutral. You pick sides: Stand up for the union, or “be a thug for J. H. Blair”
This song came to mind when I read about the ruling by a 5-4 U. S. Supreme Court majority that evidence found by police who enter a home without first following the requirement to “knock and announce” their presence can be used at trial — the Fourth Amendment notwithstanding.
Now the Fourth Amendment is part of our Bill of Rights. It’s not long-winded. Here it is, in full:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
On this Fourth of July, as on every Fourth of July, it would be well to remember that the Fourth Amendment — indeed the entire Bill of Rights — did not materialize full-blown out of the drifting smoke of some law professor’s briar pipe.
The enumeration of rights in the Bill of Rights was the distilled expression of lessons bitterly learned during years of revolutionary struggle against a tyrannical government.
The “knock and announce” requirement is critical to the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment. It dates to 13th-century England as a protection against illegal entry by the police into private homes. In our country, it has been a well-established part of Fourth Amendment law since 1914.
And now, to quotes a New York Times editorial, “President Bush’s two recent Supreme Court appointments have provided the votes for a 5-4 decision eviscerating this rule.”
Congratulations, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. You’ve taken our level of protection against lawless cops back to pre-13th-century standards.
Will Parry is president of the Puget Sound, Wash., Alliance for Retired Americans.