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A welcome rights ruling

In a welcome reinforcement of the Fourth Amendment's protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures," the Supreme Court has ruled that, except in extraordinary circumstances, police must have a warrant before entering a person's home to make an arrest. In contrast with the Burger court's sometimes mixed signals on privacy in the early 1970s, the 6-to-3 ruling this week is a forceful affirmation of a person's constitutional right to be left alone, free of government harassment, in the sanctity of his home.

The court's decision in a New York case knocks down the laws of 24 states that allow warrantless arrests in the home. The court has long held that police must have warrants to search a home but, until now, has left open the question of arrests.

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In 1976 the court approved arrests without warrants in public places. Last year the court extended the Fourth Amendment's protection to a person's car, ruling that its guarantee of "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" protects a motorist from being stopped when there is no clearly defined "probable cause" to suspect he has violated a law. The court also ruled that police can't seize suspects for questioning without enough evidence to arrest them.

This latest leaves it up to the lower courts to decide on a case-by-case basis what unusual circumstances -- such as a law enforcement officer in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect -- might allow the police to make a warrantless arrest in a person's home. But the justices leave no doubt that the overwhelming weight of the law is on the side of the individual's privacy. As Justice Stevens, speaking for the majority, put it. "The Fourth Amendment protects the individual's privacy in a variety of settings. In none is the zone of privacy more clearly defined than when bounded by the unambiguous physical dimensions of an individual's home. . . . Neither history nor this nation's experience requires us to disregard the overriding respect for the sanctity of the home that has been embedded in our traditions since the origins of the republic."

In short, a man's home is still his castle.


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