The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect your right to be secure against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Those are the actual words of the text, which is why I put them in quotes.
But earlier this month, the federal court of appeals that covers California and eight other states could not say whether it violated the Fourth Amendment for police to steal from you when they execute a search warrant.
I’m not kidding. The court could not say it was unconstitutional for police to steal the stuff they seize. Others have called the decision surprising and baffling. I don’t know what to call it myself.
Here’s what happened. Police were looking into allegedly illegal gambling. They served search warrants at some properties and left a receipt for $50,000 of cash and currency that they said they seized. The problem was, the owners said they actually took $275,000 in cash and coins but only counted $50,000 of it on the receipt.
In other words, the owners alleged the police stole the $225,000 difference between what they seized and what they said they seized. As in, poof! Gone. What $225,000?
So they sued.
And incredibly, the court threw their case out because, even if their allegations were true, it wasn’t clear that the police violated the Fourth Amendment.
On appeal, the court called the allegations “deeply disturbing” and “morally wrong,” but it claimed it wouldn’t be “clear to a reasonable officer” that major, felonious theft would violate the Constitution. And even if it’s clear today, it wasn’t clear to the average reasonable cop in 2013, when the events took place.
Come again? This cannot be a correct statement of the law. Maybe there’s more to it than meets the eye. But if not then surely we know better, and surely we can and must do better. No police officer needs a court to tell him it’s “unreasonable” to steal with or without a warrant. Every one knows that. No one thinks it’s reasonable to seize $275,000, give out a receipt for $50,000, and pocket the rest. It’s obviously not.
Where’s Johnny Mac when you need him?