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Wisconsin Supreme Court expands police search powers: Part II

In a post last week, we began a discussion about a recent ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In a 4-3 decision, the Court essentially ruled to expand law enforcement power to conduct warrantless searches. Specifically, the court may have made it easier for police officers to justify searches without a warrant by claiming the "community caretaker" exception.

There are very few legally acceptable reasons for law enforcement officers to conduct searches without first obtaining a warrant or showing probable cause. But the common justifiable reasons that do exist often have blurry boundaries. It is in court rulings (like the one mentioned above) where those boundaries become more specifically defined. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court's recent ruling on the community caretaker exception will likely expand these boundaries rather than shrink them.

Coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in another case involving evidence that may have been illegally obtained. In that case, a police officer in Salt Lake City, Utah, was staking out a house he suspected to be tied to drug activity. He followed a person leaving the house on foot and eventually detained him.

After making the stop, the officer ran the man's ID and found that he had an outstanding "small traffic warrant." He arrested the man and then searched him, and the search revealed that he was carrying meth and drug paraphernalia.

Lower courts have agreed that the initial stop was illegal because the existence of the warrant was not known when the stop was made. Therefore, the drug evidence obtained in the search should be thrown out.

Lawyers representing the state have argued that even though the officer was mistaken about the law and his authority to act, he nonetheless acted reasonably and in good faith. As such, they said, the evidence should be usable in court.

To put things another way, the state is arguing that a police officer's ignorance about the law led to an illegal search, yet that search should somehow be considered legal. Defendants are not allowed to claim ignorance as a defense, so why should there be a double standard?

Search warrants and probable cause may seem like formalities, but they are crucial tools to protect our privacy and our freedom. Without them, police officers could essentially search anyone for any reason and use whatever evidence was discovered to pursue criminal prosecution.

Although the specifics differ, both of these cases deal with questions of acceptable conduct in cases where police officers do not have a warrant and cannot otherwise demonstrate probable cause. In order to protect our freedom and privacy, we should hope that courts choose to limit police authority rather than expand it.

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