With the US Supreme Court all too often deferring to the needs of the national security state, aggrieved citizens are increasingly turning to state courts and state constitutions for protection from overzealous authorities. With a ruling last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court becomes the latest to grant protections to citizens that the federal courts have been unwilling to extend.
In its ruling in the case of Minneapolis teenager Mustafa Naji Fort, who was arrested after consenting to a search when the vehicle in which he was riding was pulled over for a traffic violation, the Minnesota high court held that police who stop motorists for traffic violations cannot ask to search the vehicle or question drivers and passengers about unrelated items, such as guns or drugs, without a reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.
The federal courts have consistently held that under the US Constitution, police can ask motorists and passengers to consent to searches absent any suspicion that a crime has taken place, while acknowledging that motorists can refuse to give that consent. Now, Minnesota residents are entitled to a higher level of protection from police searches than granted by the federal courts.
Defense attorneys who handled the case argued that it was an example of racial profiling; Fort was an African-American and he was stopped and searched in what police described as a "high drug" area. The ruling should put an end to that practice, said attorney Leonardo Castro. "That's going to stop as of today, unless police can articulate the reason why they're asking the question." The ruling was "probably the most significant civil rights decision for the state of Minnesota in the last 10 years," he said, adding that it will make a significant difference in people's everyday lives.
Minnesota joins at least nine other states where courts have extended protections beyond those granted by the federal courts, including New Jersey, which banned so-called "consent searches" as part of a reaction to its racial profiling scandals. The Minnesota high court is "beginning to distinguish itself by applying the Minnesota Constitution in a way that is more protective of individual liberties than the federal Constitution would require," said Peter Erlinder, professor of criminal constitutional law at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. The ruling could also protect police against accusations of racial profiling, he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Read the court's opinion
in Minnesota vs. Fort online at: