(graphic: Mike Licht-Notions Capital)

When facing endless “war,” be it a war on drugs or a war on terror, such niceties as constitutional rights always end up a causality of these nebulous conflicts. After all, when eternally battling with a generalized evil that will never cease to exist, the trampling of a few personal freedoms can be framed as an acceptable price. The latest example of this trend can be seen with this horrible new Supreme Court ruling, which basically shreds our Fourth Amendment rights. From the New York Times:

The police do not need a warrant to enter a home if they smell burning marijuana, knock loudly, announce themselves and hear what they think is the sound of evidence being destroyed, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday in an 8-to-1 decision.

The issue as framed by the majority was a narrow one. It assumed there was good reason to think evidence was being destroyed, and asked only whether the conduct of the police had impermissibly caused the destruction.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said police officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches by kicking down a door after the occupants of an apartment react to hearing that officers are there by seeming to destroy evidence.

The lone dissent was from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who realized this ruling just gave police carte blanche to routinely ignore the Fourth Amendment in drug cases. Police can use almost any noise they hear to claim they have “good reason” to believe evidence is being destroyed, and if the history of how police have bent and broken the rules to fight the war on drugs is any guide, they will.

The flushing of a toilet, running of a faucet, opening of a plastic bag, ripping of paper, turning on of a stove burner, or even the sound of foot steps if the officer can claim he “believed” the suspect was moving toward a fireplace (which may or may not exist) are all sounds the police use to say they had the suspicion that evidence might be destroyed. I can also assure that almost anytime the police start loudly knocking at the door late at night they are going to hear some noises they could label as reasonable suspicion. The Fourth Amendment is a shell of its former self.

The destruction of personal freedom is always the price of war

If our country saw drugs as simply a public health issue, it is hard to imagine such a massive erosion of our civil liberties would be tolerated, but we are at “war with drugs,” so we fight it like a war with little regard for basic freedoms. The same is true with the the “war on terror.” It is possible for those in power to justify a massive erosion of our rights to fight a war against some undefined eternal evil, but would be hard to justify if we acknowledged that, in reality, the concern is only a handful of dangerous criminals who are a real but highly limited threat, which should be dealt with through traditional police and intelligence actions.

A nation can either respect its citizens’ civil liberties or be in a state of endless war, but, in the long run, it can’t do both. This Supreme Court ruling is a tragic reminder of which of the two is likely win out.