4th Amendment Victories in State Courts

Cross-posted from Flex Your Rights

We've got some more required reading for all you "4th Amendment is dead" fools who keep farting on our freedom parade. I know, there's no shortage of police, judges, and prosecutors who can't find big enough boots to trample your rights with. Believe me, I know. But the law evolves over time, as does the behavior of our public servants. This month brought a couple examples of the ability of State Courts to set a higher threshold of 4th Amendment protection for the citizens they serve.

This week, the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected the State's argument that the inadvertent discovery of marijuana in a home justified searching a lockbox found elsewhere in the residence.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice William Hill, said the state failed to prove the search that disclosed the evidence which was the basis for the charge against Benton was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Wyoming Constitution.

Hill's opinion quoted the amendment that protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures and case law "because we wish to make clear that the issue presented in a case such as this is one of the most important known to Anglo-American jurisprudence."
Meanwhile, in Vermont, the State Supreme Court has issued an impressive ruling declaring that post-arrest vehicle searches require a warrant. I've long lamented the unfortunate search-incident-to-arrest doctrine, which holds that officers may automatically search a vehicle after arresting the driver. I understand that police believe arrestees are more likely to be involved in unrelated criminal activity. Still, the "officer safety" justification that has been used to uphold these searches simply doesn't apply, since an arrested suspect has no access to their vehicle.

Vermont has now departed from U.S. Supreme Court precedent by requiring that officers obtain a warrant before performing post-arrest vehicle searches. Constitutional minimum standards require states to uphold at least the same amount of Bill of Rights protection as the federal government. Pete Guither observes hilariously that "actually, the federal Bill of Rights provides greater protections from unreasonable searches and seizures than does the federal government."

Still, the failure of the federal government to abide by their own standards does not displace the important ability of states to provide greater levels of privacy protection to their citizens. I think this pretty much says it all:
"The warrant requirement is robust, alive and well under the Vermont Constitution. It's gasping on life support under federal law," said Michael Mello, a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. "It's a reaffirmation of Vermont -- we're special, we're different -- and the subtext is we're smarter and better than you, United States Supreme Court."
Let's hope other states continue to outsmart the U.S. Supreme Court. When it comes to the 4th Amendment, it really isn't that hard.

Location: 
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Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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