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Justices Hear Case of Suspect Barred from Own Home for Drug Search

Thursday, 02 November 2000 12:00 AM

Police should be able to bar access to a home, Illinois Solicitor General Joel Bertocchi told the justices during oral arguments, when officers suspect some wrongdoing and want to make sure evidence will not be destroyed.

But Deanne Jones, representing an Illinois man who was charged with a misdemeanor marijuana violation after drugs were found in his trailer, emphasized ''the right to [one's] home'' and said the Constitution protects individuals from such seizures unless police believe that evidence is ''in immediate danger'' of being ruined.

Wednesday's case is one of a series of disputes this term over police powers to search individuals and seize property when they do not have a warrant. It tests the balance between law enforcement's need to protect evidence and an individual's Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The case began when police accompanied Tera McArthur to a trailer in Sullivan, Ill., that she shared with her estranged husband, Charles McArthur, so she could peaceably remove her belongings. She told one of the officers that Charles McArthur had hidden marijuana under a couch. He denied the claim.

Police sought a search warrant, and while one of the officers left the scene to obtain the proper authorization, the other stayed at the trailer and refused to let McArthur re-enter his home.

After two hours, officers returned with a warrant, entered the trailer and found marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

McArthur argued that the evidence should be suppressed at trial based on Fourth Amendment grounds. Lower courts in Illinois agreed.

In the state's appeal, Bertocchi stressed that the intrusion on McArthur's privacy was brief and that the government's interest in keeping him from flushing the marijuana down the toilet or otherwise wrecking the evidence outweighed the infringement on McArthur's rights.

Jones countered that the police interest in preserving a relatively small amount of marijuana – about 2 grams – did not justify the breach in McArthur's privacy. She said police should be able to keep a resident out of his home only under emergency situations, such as when they think the suspect is actually destroying drugs.

''You mean they have to hear the sound of water flushing?'' Justice David Souter asked.

Justice Stephen Breyer noted that keeping McArthur out of the home was less intrusive than an officer entering without a warrant.

Breyer wondered whether the officer might have deserved ''a Fourth Amendment medal'' rather than criticism for his action.

Other justices expressed similar concerns in the case of Illinois vs. McArthur about safeguarding potential proof of a crime.

Asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: ''What could they do to preserve the evidence in these cases? Nothing?''

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Police should be able to bar access to a home, Illinois Solicitor General Joel Bertocchi told the justices during oral arguments, when officers suspect some wrongdoing and want to make sure evidence will not be destroyed. But Deanne Jones, representing an Illinois man...
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2000-00-02
Thursday, 02 November 2000 12:00 AM
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