EDITORIAL: Another step backward for civil liberties

In a move that deepens concerns about its future direction, the Supreme Court last week said evidence found when police with a search warrant enter a home without knocking can be used at trial. In its decision, announced June 15, the nation’s highest court rejected a long-standing legal principle that evidence obtained when the “knock and announce” rule is violated cannot be used in a criminal case.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, said suppression of evidence was “too high a price” for a minor violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure. He was joined in the narrow 5-4 decision by Bush appointees Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, as well as by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

The case, Hudson v. Michigan, was first argued in January, and then reargued in May following the resignation of former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and her replacement by Alito. Many commentators speculated that the outcome might have been different with O’Connor on the court, pointing out that she had expressed concern about the consequences of dropping the protection.

The decision “represents a significant departure from the court’s precedents,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a majority opinion joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “And it weakens, perhaps destroys, much of the practical value of the Constitution’s knock-and-announce protection.”

Though some claim the brief delay imposed by “knock and announce” can give suspects a chance to conceal evidence, others view the rule as a protection for police as well as citizens. Over the weekend, National Public Radio broadcast comments by ranking police officers who pointed out that the rule not only encouraged police to be professional in their conduct, but also lowered possible dangers from mistaken identity.

Once their appointments to the Supreme Court are confirmed, justices generally remain on the court for decades. The George W. Bush appointees could perpetuate their patron’s disregard for civil liberties long after the American people have dealt other parts of the Bush agenda a decisive defeat.