The 4th Amendment Is Another Victim of the Drug War

Over at the Washington Post, Radley Balko details a recent Fourth Circuit ruling overturning an award for a father whose son was shot and killed in a military-style SWAT raid after marijuana residue was found in an outside garbage bag. A jury awarded the father $250,000 after it was shown that the police failed to comply with their obligation to knock and announce their presence before barging in and that they lied about several aspects of the raid.

Without repeating the entirety of Balko’s excellent analysis, a particularly troubling aspect of the ruling is the nonchalant way in which the Fourth Circuit judges, even in dissent, treat the militarized raid over marijuana residue and dispense with any suggestion that such escalated violence is constitutionally questionable:

Let’s first start by noting one very important issue that is not in dispute—whether the massive amount of force the police brought to bear in this case was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As far as the federal courts are concerned, it was. As Judge Pamela Harris points out in her dissent, “The point here, to be clear, is not to take issue with the Officers’ decision to execute a search warrant based on marijuana traces by way of a military-style nighttime raid.”

Harris is correct. The courts long ago decided that dangerous, punishing SWAT-style raids to search for pot—even when there is no evidence of distribution—are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A lawsuit arguing otherwise will be promptly tossed.

Balko then points out that such behavior is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent:

But it’s worth considering the absurdity of that position. In the 20 or so years leading up to the American Revolution, the British crown began stationing troops in the streets of Boston to enforce England’s tax and import laws. The British troops and enforcement officers were armed with writs of assistance, or general warrants that gave them broad powers to search colonists’ homes. They didn’t need to establish probable cause, or even specificity as to a person or residence. The abuse that came with those warrants made Boston a hub of revolutionary fervor, and memories of that abuse are why the Founders created a Fourth Amendment after the war.

But while today’s search warrants require both specificity and some evidence of wrongdoing, in many ways the colonists had more protections than we do today. For example, the British soldiers could serve warrants only during the day. And they were always required to knock, announce themselves, announce their purpose and give the resident time and opportunity to come to the door to let them in peacefully. This was all in observance of the Castle Doctrine, or the idea that the home should be a place of peace and sanctuary and that it should be violated only in the most extreme circumstances. Even then, the Castle Doctrine had a rich history in English common law, a tradition that carried over in the United States until the Supreme Court began chipping away at it in drug cases, beginning in about the 1960s.

Today, of course, authorities can break into homes without knocking. They can conduct raids at night. In theory, we’re today protected by the requirement that authorities show probable cause before serving a warrant, but given the deference judges give to police and prosecutors in much of the country and the boilerplate language you’ll often find on warrant affidavits, you could make a good argument that in many jurisdictions the probable cause protection is little more than a formality. In any case, if the Fourth Amendment is due to the Founders’ offense at British soldiers forcibly entering homes in daylight hours after knocking and announcing to search for contraband, it seems safe to say that the Founders would be appalled by the fact that today, dozens of times each day, heavily armed government officials break into homes, often at night, without first knocking and announcing, in order to conduct searches for contraband.

It’s a persuasive point. Whether the issue is civil asset forfeiture, warrantless surveillance, or armed government agents barreling through your front door at 4:30 in the morning, there is a strong case to be made that the drug war has mangled the Fourth Amendment beyond recognition. That federal courts can observe as much with so little concern is a testament to the institutional nature of this problem.

The entire ruling can be found here.