Now, search for answers

Constitutionality of Boston police behavior needs to be questioned

Law enforcement officers were rightly hailed as
heroes after capturing the second Boston bombing suspect.

These officers risked everything to track the suspect down – knowing full well he was armed and deadly and perhaps even strapped with explosives.

The nation’s anxiety during the search turned to relief, gratitude and adulation afterward. The scenes of law enforcement vehicles being applauded by bystanders as they exited the scene were exhilirating, and filled observers with patriotism and pride.

Having said that, we hope the nation is up to a debate over how the search was carried out – and that law enforcement officials are open to it.

In particular, it must be asked: Were the searches of homes entirely constitutional?

Amateur footage now on the Internet shows one home being emptied by a SWAT team as part of a search of it. If the residents were asked for consent, the debate is over. But if not, it’s troubling to see what occurred next.

The house was emptied out of a handful of residents, one by one, with orders for them to keep their hands in the air like criminals. They were each whisked down the sidewalk and frisked.

As a nation, we need to talk about this.

Ordinarily, the government must have the consent of the resident or probable cause (usually accompanied by a warrant) to search a house. Obviously, this was not an ordinary situation. Public safety was at issue.

Does that mean the no-questions-asked removal of residents is constitutional? Or if not, does it mean we temporarily suspended the Constitution?

It’s likely the residents of Boston gladly waived their rights that night.

The executive director of
the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, Carol Rose, told the libertarian Reason.com that her office has received some citizen complaints of rights violations. She didn’t express an opinion on the matter, except to caution that, “This is not the time to give up our constitutional rights and civil liberties. This is the time that they become most important. It is in times of crisis and fear that they are most tested.”

Even so, the Reason writer noted, “During the course of my reporting, I was unable to locate a single Watertown resident that admitted to being uncomfortable” with the government’s actions.

We don’t pretend to know the answer, and indeed the answer may be wholly subjective and a matter of opinion. We suspect the courts would confirm authorities’ right to search in an emergency, under the legal principle of “exigent circumstances.” But we think the debate would be a healthy exercise in American civics. And from a practical standpoint, we’d feel better about it if the arguments were had and the legal justifications spelled out – and a line is drawn somewhere.

Our unease is only exacerbated when someone such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg opines that in the wake of Boston, “our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.”

To what extent, sir, and to whose liking? And under what authority?

When the dust settles and the nerves calm, it’s a discussion we need to have.

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