Court Limits Guests' Right to Privacy
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court yesterday limited the privacy rights of guests invited over to someone's home, rejecting the idea that visitors share their host's constitutional protection from unreasonable police searches.
The 5-4 ruling, in which the conservative justices seized the majority, provoked a strong warning from dissenting justices who contend that the ruling represents a new threat to personal security and will tempt police to pry into private homes.
The majority's narrow reading of the Fourth Amendment safeguard against police intrusions is consistent with the law-and-order bent of the high court in recent years, but it nonetheless marks a shift from a 1990 ruling in which the justices said a guest who spends the night at someone's home has a legitimate expectation of privacy.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who had dissented in 1990, wrote yesterday for the court, "[A]n overnight guest in a home may claim the protection of the Fourth Amendment, but one who is merely present with the consent of the householder may not."
The decision reinstated the drug conspiracy convictions of two Minnesota men who were seen bagging cocaine by a police officer peeking through drawn window blinds.
Yesterday's decision is significant both in an era of stepped-up police vigilance and increased national concern for government intrusions on privacy, whether through modern techniques such as electronic eavesdropping or old-fashioned window snooping.
In a forcefully worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the decision "undermines not only the security of short-term guests, but also the security of the home resident herself."
When someone "personally invites a guest into her home . . . whether it be for conversation, to engage in leisure activities, or for business purposes licit or illicit, that guest should share his host's shelter against unreasonable searches and seizures," Ginsburg wrote in a dissenting opinion, signed by Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter and endorsed by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches, and courts have long required individuals who want to protest a police search typically to stop seized evidence from being introduced at trial to show that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that was searched. Yesterday's case was important in addressing the privacy rights of a short-term guest, as opposed to the homeowner or someone who stays overnight.
The dispute began when a police officer in the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan, Minn., investigated a tip from an informant who reported drug activities in a ground-floor apartment. Without obtaining a search warrant, the officer looked through a gap in the closed blinds and saw Wayne Thomas Carter and Melvin Jones bagging a white substance with a woman, who (it turned out) lived in the apartment. After the men left the apartment and got into their car, police arrested them and seized 47 grams of cocaine.
At their trial, Carter and Johns sought to have the evidence suppressed on the grounds that the police officer's initial observation of their drug activity amounted to an unconstitutional search.
The trial judge disagreed, and Carter and Johns were convicted. But the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling that even though "society does not recognize as valuable the task of bagging cocaine, we conclude that society does recognize as valuable the right of property owners or leaseholders to invite persons into the privacy of their homes."
In overturning that decision, the Supreme Court emphasized that Carter and Johns were in the apartment for only about 2 1/2 hours and that they were engaged in a commercial endeavor.
Joining Rehnquist in the ruling that the short-term visitors had no legitimate privacy expectations were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Kennedy wrote separately, saying that "social guests have a legitimate expectation of privacy" and suggesting that a person who claimed that he was a purely social visitor might be able to claim protection from a police search.
Separately, Justice Breyer agreed with the dissenters that the defendants had a privacy right, but voted to reinstate the cocaine convictions, saying the police officer acted reasonably in looking in the window after getting a tip.
Attorney James Backstrom, who represented Minnesota in the case against Carter and Johns, said the ruling would give police greater leeway in investigating drug dealers. But Boston University law professor Tracey Maclin, who wrote a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota v. Carter, said the ruling is an invitation to police to pry into homes.
© 1998 The Washington Post Company