The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 yesterday that the Constitution safeguards "individuals from unreasonable government invasions of legitimate privacy interests" outside as well as inside "the four walls of the home."
This was "a fundamental purpose of the Fourth Amendment," Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wroe in the majority opinion.
The ruling rejected a restricted Justice Department view of the amendment, which says, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures sdhall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized."
The department, defending the warrantless seizure and search of a double-locked footlocker correctly believed to contain marijuana, read the history of the amendment to mean history of the amendment to mean that it protects only interests traditionally identified with the home itself and with offices and private communications.
Burger wrote that "there is no evidence at all" that the framers of the Constitution intended to exclude from the amendment's protection all searches occurring outside the home.
He acknowledged there was no out-cry against warrantless searches in public places when the amendment was adopted in 1791. But, he said such searches were not "a large issue in colonial America. . . What we do know is that the framers were men who focused on the wrongs of that day but who intended the Fourth Amendment to safeguard fundamental values which would far outlast the specific abuses which gave it birth."
Justice Harry A. Blackmun, even though he dissented from the judgement, termed it "somewhat unfortunate that the goverment sought a reversal in this case primarily to vindicate an extreme view of the Fourth Amendment. . ."Justice William H. Rehnquist joined him.
The footlocker came to the attention of Amtrak officials in San Diego in May, 1973. They noted it was unusually heavy (it weighed 200 pounds) and that it wasleaking talcum powder, which commonly is used to mask marijuana odor. The footlocker was bound for Boston. Federal narcotics agents, alerted by Amtrak officials, were on hand when it arrived there.
After two men claimed the foot-locker, put it on the floor and sat down on it, the agents released a specially trained police dog. It signaled the presence of marijuana. Joined by a third suspect, the two men put the footlocker into the trunk of a waiting car.
At that point - with the car trunk still open and the car engine not started - the agents arrested the trio. More than an hour later, at their headquarters, the agents opened the footlockerbefore securing a warrant.
Upholding the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Burger wrote that the agents unconstitutionally had invaded the men's privacy interests in the footlocker, and had done so without the justification an emergency might have provided.
He said the search was unjustified in connection with the arrest, which was lawful. The dissenters argued that the search was justified.