- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

The Supreme Court said yesterday the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches may not apply to bomb-carriers or to gunmen at airports or schools.

The warning that terrorists may be dealt with outside the Constitution came in a routine criminal case decided the day after the Justice Department filed papers opposing a separate high court appeal that challenges the State Department's designation of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as "foreign terrorist organizations."

The court, which has had limited contact with terrorism cases, voiced the unusual comments without being asked in a 9-0 ruling for a 15-year-old youth arrested in 1995 after he was searched at a Miami bus stop by officers acting on an anonymous telephone tip.

"We hold only that something more than a bare-boned anonymous tip must be shown to justify a firearm frisk," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. The opinion then went beyond the question of establishing a "firearms exception" to the rule that police may act only on reliable information.

"Unlike a tip from a known informant whose reputation can be assessed and who can be held responsible if her allegations turn out to be fabricated, an anonymous tip alone seldom demonstrates the informant's basis of knowledge or veracity," the opinion said.

"We do not now speculate on whether, in some cases, the danger might be so great as to justify a search even without showings of the caller's or the tip's reliability," Justice Ginsburg said in announcing the decision in open court. She mentioned the prospect of a suspect carrying a bomb or a person with a gun at an airport or in a school.

The court took just four weeks from argument to written opinion in the case called Florida vs. J.L., whom the tipster identified by his location and the distinctive plaid shirt he wore.

Police organizations were angered at the decision, which they said endangers officers in their most vulnerable contacts with suspects, and indicated puzzlement that it was supported by conservative justices who traditionally back protection for police officers.

"We are disappointed and frankly very baffled by the court's decision," said Robert T. Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, which filed a brief saying guns were the fatal weapon for 92 percent of the 688 police officers killed on duty from 1988 to 1997.

"As a consequence of this ruling, the danger to law enforcement officers and the general public will significantly increase," Mr. Scully said.

"An automatic firearm exception to our established reliability analysis would rove too far," the court said.

But Justice Ginsburg added that people carrying guns in airports and schools could not be immune from searches the Fourth Amendment would prohibit in other places.

A defense lawyer familiar with terrorism issues said the court had only raised a possibility.

"It's fair to say that any lawyer would be concerned with greater public attention and greater public fear of events involving terrorism, that might justify making exceptions, but I haven't seen the Supreme Court doing that yet," said the lawyer, who asked not to be identified.

In an unrelated prison case decided yesterday, the court ruled 6-3 that Georgia parole authorities could schedule parole hearings for life termers every eight years, rather than the three-year intervals they had used.

The decision reversed a ruling against the state by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Robert L. Jones' rights were violated by the change in procedure after he received a second life sentence for a murder committed during an escape from the first.

"The states must have due flexibility in formulating parole procedures and addressing problems associated with confinement and release," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. He noted that internal rules allowed a prisoner to request an early hearing if circumstances change.

Dissenters were Justices Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide