March 28, 2004 - The Delta Democrat Times (MS)

Editorial: Knock, Knock - But This One Is No Joke

Ruling Erodes Constitutional Protections

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First came the U.S. Patriot Act passed by Congress mere months after the 9/11 events. Then, in 2003, came the addendums to the Patriot Act, which Congress has been asked to extend and approve.

Much of the Patriot Act - after more careful review - has little to do with terrorism abatement and more to do with the intrusion of government and law enforcement agencies into the privacy of individuals. These intrusions border on, or are an outright stripping away, of some basic constitutional rights guaranteed to a free people in this country.

Now much closer to home comes a recent federal appeals court ruling from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which ruled that evidence found or seized by law enforcement from a warrantless search, can be used in court.

Considering the number and types of abuses already recorded against law enforcement agencies across the country - from the Federal Bureau of Investigation on down to local police departments - this ruling now opens the door for more possible mischief and abuse.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling covers Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, and has an immediate and direct effect - not only in the state - but in municipalities as well.

What the court has basically said in its ruling is that police officers in these states can search homes and buildings for evidence without a warrant if they have a "legitimate law enforcement purpose."

The 11-4 ruling replaces a previous standard set in 1994, when the 5th Circuit held that police can make a so-called protective sweep only if officers are there to arrest someone.

The ruling came from a Baton Rouge case which was heard first in U.S. District Court then appealed to the 5th Circuit Court.

The Associated Press reported on Friday that the decision came in the case of a Denham Springs, La. man, Kelly Donald Gould, who was arrested in October 2000 on federal gun charges. He allegedly threatened to kill unidentified judges and police officers.

East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputies went to Gould's trailer without a search or arrest warrant, but were invited into the trailer by another resident. Gould, authorities were told, was asleep in a bedroom at the time the deputies arrived.

Because of the Gould's threats and criminal history, the deputies said they looked for him under the bed and in two closets, where they found three rifles. They later found Gould hiding in the woods and seized the weapons after they got him to sign a permission for the search.

U.S. District Judge James Brady ruled that the guns could not be used as evidence because they were obtained illegally. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit upheld that decision, but encouraged prosecutors to request a hearing before the court to reconsider the legal precedent on which it was based.

Dissenting justices argued the ruling establishes another exception to constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure.

The AP story goes on to report that Judges Harold DeMoss Jr. and Carl E. Stewart writing for the court, said "I have no doubt that the deputy sheriffs believed they were acting reasonably and with good intentions. But the old adage warns us that 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions."'

Any evidence discovered during that search is now admissible in court as long as the search is a "cursory inspection," and if police entered the site for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and believed it might be dangerous.

What's a "cursory inspection?" Who defines what is "dangerous?" Would they define a "legitimate law enforcement purpose" after they enter and then find evidence to support a crime? Are these terms left up to local law enforcement to define and interpret as they want? One would hope not.

What does this mean for local residents?

Well, it wouldn't matter if a person lived on Nelson Street, Bayou Road or VFW Road, any police officer can now enter your house without a warrant if he/she felt it was for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and, then, basically go on a fishing expedition for evidence.

And the police can say, well, it was a dangerous situation and we had to enter to protect ourselves.

This is surely a case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, where one would hope the constitutional rights of individuals against unlawful searches and seizures would be upheld.

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