Tag: Fourth Amendment

Dance Like Thomas Jefferson’s Watching

As Thomas Jefferson’s birthday (April 13) approaches – and last night being the first night of Passover, which Jews celebrate to commemorate their deliverance from slavery – I thought I’d comment on a disturbing tale that reminds us again that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

In celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s (265th) birthday last year, about 20 D.C.-area libertarians gathered at the Jefferson Memorial just before midnight.  The plan was to have a music-through-headphones dance party for the father of the Declaration of Independence (i.e. each person would dance to the tune of his individual iPod). I was actually supposed to attend, but for some reason did not make it.

It was a short-lived party, however, with an ending that would almost certainly have made our nation’s third president frown in disapproval.

Shortly after the silent bopping started, U.S. Park Police officers began to disperse the partygoers. After shooing and pushing revelers (who were drunk only on liberty) off the memorial, one officer confronted the lone remaining dancer, Brooke Oberwetter, and told her to leave.  Oberwetter calmly asked what law or rules she was violating.  The officer provided no explanation but continued to insist that she leave.  Not satisfied with the officer’s response, Oberwetter stood her ground – until the officer pushed her against a stone pillar, handcuffed her, and led her away.

Now, nearly one year later – after the citation against her (for “interfering with an agency function,” whatever that means) was neither dropped nor pursued – Oberwetter filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the arresting officer, Kenneth Hilliard, and the Secretary of the Interior, Kenneth Salazar (whose office oversees the Park Police). Oberwetter argues that Hilliard and the Park Police violated her First Amendment rights by interrupting and preventing her expressive activity and freedom of assembly.  She also alleges that here Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was arrested without probable cause and with excessive force.

The complaint, available here, is a model of legal writing.  Pithy, legally sound, and eminently readable, I cannot recommend it more highly to law students and young lawyers.  This is perhaps not surprising because Oberwetter’s counsel is none other than my friend Alan Gura, who last year successfully argued D.C. v. Heller before the Supreme Court.
Here’s a recent TV news story about the case and here’s Radley Balko’s (formerly of Cato, now at Reason) original post about the incident.

Full disclosure: While our tenures never crossed, Oberwetter is a former Cato employee – and a social acquaintance.  I wish Brooke and Alan the best in their fight against such arbitrary use of government power to oppress basic liberty.  (As Alan told me, a good rule of thumb for police: if you can’t think of any charges, even a few weeks later, it was probably a bad arrest.)  And I hope the incident gets Kevin Bacon thinking sequel.

School Strips Student of Clothes, Rights

A middle-school student who was caught red-handed with prescription-strength ibuprofen (in violation of the school’s drug policy) implicated another 13-year-old girl, Savana Redding. On the sole basis of this accusation, school officials searched Savana’s backpack, finding no evidence of drug use, drug possession, or any other illegal or improper conduct. They then took the girl to the nurse’s office and ordered her to undress. Not finding any pills in Savana’s pants or shirt, the officials ordered the girl to pull out her bra and panties and move them to the side. The observation of Savana’s genital area and breasts also failed to reveal any contraband.

Savana’s mother, whom Savana had not been permitted to call before or during the strip search, sued the school district and officials for violating her daughter’s Fourth Amendment rights to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court and a panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled against her, but the en banc Ninth Circuit reversed, finding the search unjustified and unreasonable in scope, and therefore unconstitutional. The Supreme Court granted the school district’s petition for review.

Cato, joined by the Rutherford Institute and Goldwater Institute, filed a brief supporting the Reddings’ suit, arguing that strip searches, particularly of students, are subject to a higher level of scrutiny than other kinds of searches. Such searches are reasonable only when school officials have highly credible evidence showing that (1) the student is in possession of objects posing a significant danger to the school and (2) the student has secreted the objects in a place only a strip search will uncover.

In this case, there was insufficient factual basis for the strip search and the search was not reasonably related and disproportionate to the school officials’ investigation. The Supreme Court should thus affirm the Ninth Circuit and establish that such searches may be undertaken only when compelling evidence suggests a strip search is necessary to preserve school safety and health.

Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding will be argued at the Supreme Court on April 21.

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