Public Safety vs. the Constitution


In recent years and possibly even weeks, many people have cited one of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quotes:

He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.

With the recent gun debates and possibly now with terrorism hitting US soil again, the debate is likely to be re-opened. How much freedom are some people willing to give up in return for additional safety? If in some parallel universe, it was possible to ban all guns and eliminate all gun violence, would you go for that? Sure, who wouldn’t. But that’s not the case. Some believe that restricting gun ownership or even outright banning them will make us safer.

How about during a manhunt for a terrorist? The way it was being described on tv, it didn’t sound so bad. The police were doing a sweep of Watertown, MA, house by house looking for the second bombing suspect. They were essentially trawling the town knowing he’d eventually get caught in their net.

After seeing a video though, it wasn’t just a “sweep through the neighborhood.” Should the police be allowed to go door to door, demand that every resident vacate their home, at gunpoint with hands over their head and stand out in the street until the police have thoroughly searched their home?

Checking the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, it reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall 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 persons or things to be seized.

I didn’t see a warrant being served and I have no idea if there was probable cause for the police to search the house shown in the video. Of course people can voluntarily give up their right and allow the police to search their house. One has to wonder though if every house was searched with the same enthusiasm as shown in the video.

As for the “against unreasonable searches” part of the amendment. Here we’re at the interpretation part. My understanding is that the intent is whether it was reasonable to think that the property being searched (and the people being patted down) were involved with the crimes. Is it reasonable to conduct that kind of wide swath search? Ok, I get it, “But this is a terrorist who just bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three, then murdered an MIT police officer in cold blood, engaged in a massive shootout with police and then drove over his own brother in a getaway vehicle. This is not a normal situation.” But is that where we’re setting the bar for this kind of search, or are we going to go down the slippery slope of how much less does someone have to do and where this kind of search is considered ok.

I know, people are going to be angry with me about this post. The police just potentially saved more lives, maybe even my own by working this way. No, their search didn’t directly lead to finding the bomber in the boat, that was due to a private citizen’s tip. However, if police didn’t have their nets cast and actively searching, could the suspect have more easily slipped away? And does that justify the police’s actions?

What would have happened if the person who answered the door to the SWAT team told them that no, they may not search the inside of the house and no one will be leaving at this time? I don’t think it would have been a pretty situation in the least, but I also don’t think that anyone can argue that the homeowner would have been outside his rights.

So where’s the line for you in this situation? Was this a violation of the Fourth Amendment or is it all worth it in the name of personal and public safety?

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