There’s a small armed force here on planet Earth that boasts 6,600 troops, 800 support personnel and a $600 million budget. Its officers carry weapons ranging from semiautomatic rifles to revolvers, and they patrol their territory in helicopters, armored vehicles and souped-up automobiles. What’s more, this force’s surveillance capabilities include cameras on public street corners that can monitor citizens’ daily activities—including the vast majority who aren’t engaged in any subversive or criminal activity whatsoever.
This force is known as the Philadelphia Police Department. And guess what: They’ve got a new resource now. Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled 4-2 to grant police in our state the right to search automobiles without a warrant.
Before this decision, police in Pennsylvania generally had to get a warrant before searching your vehicle unless they had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed. For instance: If officers merely suspected drugs were in your car, that was not sufficient to allow an immediate search; they had to at least go through the motions of respecting civil liberties. Officers would have to consult civilian courts—often done via cell phone or radio—wait perhaps as little as a few minutes, and then receive a warrant to proceed with the search.
While that kind of “going through the motions” might sound trivial, it represented a key layer of protection of citizens’ basic liberties. The requirement to obtain a warrant sent a message: People have rights.
The warrant requirement for automobile searches wasn’t a federal right, interestingly: For decades, legal interpretations of Pennsylvania’s state constitution agreed that it gave greater protections to our state’s citizens than does merely the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Then, last week, Pennsylvania’s high court reversed that interpretation.
Their decision took away a recognized right belonging to citizens and swapped it for an extraneous gift to a law-enforcement establishment that’s already awash in perks, privileges and exceptions. Don’t recent news headlines already make it clear that there’s no shortage of police officers who feel they can do whatever they want whenever they want? Now, they don’t even need a warrant from a court to do it, either.
When the state Supreme Court endorses this type of authoritarian exceptionalism, it harms citizens—and it creates a culture of fear, distrust, and resentment between civilians and police.
This is particularly disheartening because Pennsylvania used to be one of the best states in terms of safeguarding our civil liberties and privacy. For example: The state still has one of the strictest wiretapping laws in the nation. Ever make a call in Pennsylvania to a bank or large corporation and hear, “This call may be recorded?” That’s legal recognition of your right to know when you’re being recorded in Pennsylvania—a right that’s particularly strong in the context of a one-on-one, private conversation, but even a seemingly public conversation between two people can run afoul of this wiretapping law, too.
What the hell, Supreme Court? Who do you represent anymore?
This decision warrants a serious response from Pennsylvania’s legislature and citizens. To be specific: It must be corrected by an amendment to the state constitution.
I sometimes hear folks say, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” Given the past decade’s revelations surrounding government surveillance of U.S. citizens, along with the nauseatingly familiar news of police brutality and dishonesty we hear about on a fairly regular basis in Philadelphia, I’m left feeling that this type of don’t-worry-be-happy approach is, at best, frivolous—and, at worst, an outright delusion.
We cannot trust the government to do the right thing in almost any circumstance. This is exactly why we have rights in the first place. This is also why we have a civilian-run government rooted in respecting the process and not an authoritarian dictatorship focused merely on outcome.
Why the state Supreme Court decided to grant police unwarranted trust is baffling. It tells me something is seriously wrong with the commonwealth’s top jurists if they think police should be given greater rights than the citizens they’re supposed to protect.
Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to Philadelphia Police Lieutenant John Stanford, who said to NBC10 last year: “People have to remember officers are human beings ... It’s just like any other profession. You have some folks who don’t do things the way they’re supposed to.”
With that in mind, we probably shouldn’t make it easier for police to behave badly.