Court Rulings Threaten Fourth Amendment Protection, Study Finds

December 04, 1997

Athens, Ohio -- Americans' right to privacy and protection from unlawful searches is slowly being eroded as the U.S. Supreme Court justices have granted more power to law enforcement officials to protect society from dangerous individuals, according to a new study by an Ohio University researcher.

Balancing the rights of the individual and the protection of society has been an historical challenge of the court, but recent rulings are on the brink of threatening individual liberties protected by the Fourth Amendment, according to Arthur J. Marinelli, a professor of business law in Ohio University's College of Business and author of the study.

"There has been a marked increase by the Supreme Court in ruling for the government in Fourth Amendment cases," Marinelli said. "The present court is deciding in a number of search and seizure cases to abandon a probable cause requirement in favor of a reasonableness test. The test balances the extent of the intrusion of the suspect's privacy rights against the need by the government to protect society."

From a review of Supreme Court rulings over the last 12 years, Marinelli found that police roadblocks, drug testing in schools and the workplace and police search of household garbage have been deemed legal by recent Supreme court majority opinions.

Among the Supreme Court rulings included in Marinelli's research:

The government was justified in ordering drug tests on U.S. Treasury Department employees without probable cause because of governmental interests in detecting and deterring drug use in sensitive positions of government. The court expressed concern about drug users being susceptible to bribery and blackmail.

Public school officials can require students to submit to urine tests for drugs as a condition of participating in interscholastic athletics. The court found the tests reasonable in the unique setting of the public schools, ruling that schools do not enjoy the Fourth Amendment protection of the warrant and probable cause requirements.

Police roadblocks for "sobriety checkpoints" further the state's interest in preventing drunken driving while causing a minimal degree of intrusion upon motorists.

The Fourth Amendment does not apply to the police search of garbage bags left on a public curb for pickup because the defendants had "exposed their garbage to the public."

"The very essence of the Fourth Amendment is the protection of individual privacy and the regulation of the exercise of governmental power," Marinelli said. "The Court has relaxed the probable cause requirement for warrants. In the future, the Court should hold warrantless searches presumptively unreasonable."

Marinelli presented his study at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Diego held Nov. 19-22.

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Contact: Arthur Marinelli, 614-593-2063.
Written by Dwight Woodward, 614-593-1886;

Ohio University

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