Politics & Media
Jan 19, 2009, 04:35AM

Police and Thieves

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of wrongfully acquired evidence. Is this good for American justice?

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Photo by Johndoeforty1

The Supreme Court ruled last week, in a 5-4 decision along the usual conservative/liberal lines, that evidence collected by police due to police mistakes can be used against defendants.

The decision came in a case in which police mistakenly arrested a man named Bennie Herring of Alabama. During the arrest, they found methamphetamine and an empty gun in his car. It turned out, however, that the arrest warrant that the officers used to arrest Herring had been revoked months before. The police's database had mistakenly not been updated to reflect the change.

I’m not a legal scholar, but I don’t think that the decision is a good one for America. In all societies, there is a balance between government power and individual rights. In dictatorships the pendulum swings very far towards the government; in libertarian governments the pendulum swings in the opposite direction.

In our democracy we have prided ourselves in always trying to let the pendulum swing a bit more towards the individual rights side. Some of the proudest moments in our history have been when groups of individuals have won victories against the forces that would limit them. I’m thinking specifically of the Civil War; Teddy Roosevelt’s wars against the giant trusts in the early 20th century; FDR’s victory over entrenched interests during the Great Depression; and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

I’m not trying to argue that I think Bennie Herring is an innocent victim. In fact, I’d say that under normal circumstances he probably deserves to go to jail. But I’d also say just as emphatically that he, and everyone else, deserves the protection of the law—even if he is a very imperfect citizen.

Rules limiting police power are not intended to allow people to get away with crimes; they’re intended to ensure that police do not abuse their already substantial power over individual citizens. The Constitution doesn’t only limit government; it protects citizens. Because the police didn’t follow the rules in Bennie Herring’s case, even if their mistake was unintentional, they should not be allowed to use the tainted evidence against him.

The balance between government power and individual rights is a delicate one, and it is constantly shifting based on popular opinions and legislative changes. Too many times in the past decade we have allowed the balance to shift too far towards government. Bennie Herring’s case is one example.

As Americans we pride ourselves on individual rights. Let’s make sure going forward that we do our best not to let the government have any more power than it needs to keep us free.


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