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Do What's Constitutional -- Always
Police Investigation in Progress
Chief Justice William Rehnquist
Chief Justice John Roberts
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
Justice John Paul Stevens
Police officers have a tough and dangerous job -- and they deserve our support.
Our support, however, should be for the law, and for giving police officers the backing they need to carry out their lawful function in relative safety; however, we need not, and should not, endorse unlawful means of making arrests or gathering evidence.
It is important that we keep in mind, in regard to the pursuit of suspects, that the end does not justify the means.
Innocent 'til Proven Guilty
Despite the fact that policemen often believe a suspect to be guilty, most of us would agree it's wrong for an officer to reinforce his case by planting evidence or otherwise violating citizens' rights (We still do believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty, don't we?)
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist noted, "The additional intrusion on the passenger is minimal," as a practical matter, when police stop a vehicle whose driver is suspected of committing a traffic offense. But the court did not say whether officers can require passengers to remain on the scene.
The ruling reversed a Maryland court decision that said crack cocaine found during a 1994 traffic stop could not be used as evidence because the officer did not have the right to order a passenger out of a car.
Officer Safety Issue
"The same weighty interest in officer safety is present regardless of whether the occupant of the stopped car is a driver or a passenger," Rehnquist said.
Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony M. Kennedy dissented.
"The Constitution should not be read to permit law enforcement officers to order innocent passengers about simply because they have the misfortune to be seated in a car whose driver has committed a minor traffic offense," said Stevens.
Police do not have the luxury of studying matters after pondering the briefs of attorneys on both sides of the issue -- as the court does. Their decision often must be made in split seconds without the benefit of expert advice.
For this reason, we should be understanding when honest mistakes are made. But, when errors are made, and citizens suffer unjustly, we also must correct the wrong insofar as we are able.
It's important to reduce crime, but we must do so with our enthusiasm in check, and while safeguarding our hard-earned constitutional protections.
Sometimes it seems difficult, but we must remember that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The easy way out invariably ends up the hardest way when all is said and done.
A Nation of Laws
All of us, particularly the high court justices, are bound by the U.S. Constitution. The question is not how we can best correct existing law, but rather what can we do that's constitutional!
We are a nation of laws, and I hope we always will be. Anytime anyone fails to abide by this standard, we should not be fearful of expressing our indignation.
I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaperof Norwalk, Conn., on Feb. 24, 1997. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages.