The systematic shredding of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of personal privacy in the name of the war on drugs proceeds apace. The latest example is a Supreme Court decision (in Maryland vs. Pringle) that approves the police arresting every passenger in a car where drugs are found.
The case stems from a 1999 traffic stop in Maryland, during which police found a roll of money in the glove box and some cocaine in the armrest in the back seat. Neither the driver nor the two passengers admitted to owning the drugs, so the police simply arrested all three of them.
On Monday, the Supreme Court said that was fine.
The ruling puts people on notice that they had better be careful whom they ride with. In normal circumstances it would be considered somewhat rude to ask to search through the glove box when somebody offers you a ride, but that might not be a bad idea in the wake of this decision. The court’s rationale could also apply to searches of homes and to contraband other than drugs.
As Tim Lynch, director of criminal justice studies at the Cato Institute, said, it is not so much that the decision to arrest in this particular case was completely out of line. It’s that the drug war causes the police and the courts to keep pushing at personal privacy. A few weeks ago the high court ruled that if somebody didn’t answer a knock on the door in 10 or 15 seconds it was perfectly reasonably to batter down the door.
The fundamental problem is that when a victimless crime is created — in the narrow legal sense that neither party in a drug transaction is likely to become a complaining victim and demand that the police get the perpetrator, as would be the case in, say, a burglary — a problem is created for the police.
The only way to try to enforce such a law is to invade people’s private spaces, and invade them as quickly, efficiently and sometimes brutally as possible.
When the courts look at the situation from the perspective of the drug warriors rather than from the perspective of a citizen in a free society who has a reasonable expectation of privacy, they keep authorizing ever more intrusive methods. It doesn’t stop the drug trade, of course, but the process gradually erodes the expectation of privacy that ordinary citizens should have.