Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, individuals stopped in periodic traffic stops cannot be subjected to overly invasive searches of their vehicles, or prolonged periods of being detained, without police officers having justification for doing so. When a suspicious vehicle or individual in a traffic stop leads to subsequent searches and eventual arrests, one of the most common claims by defendants at trial is that the evidence that the police uncovered should be suppressed because it was obtained without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. A recent case in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals looks at the specific question of what is required under the Constitution in order to justify holding a defendant for a prolonged period of time to conduct a dog sniff and search.
There are a number of elections for judges going on in Wisconsin now. The contest drawing the most attention is the election for the Supreme Court. Some of the ads, typically run by special interest groups, have been disturbingly misleading. For example, a series of ads have been run attacking one of the candidates for decisions she’s written as an Appeals Court judge that are alleged to be supporting “criminals” rather than the general good. At the same time, the other candidate is saying she should be elected because she’d be more likely to “uphold the Constitution”. In reality, when a judge issues a decision that protects an accused’s 4th amendment rights, she is upholding the Constitution. In the law, “criminals” don’t have different rights than the rest of us-we all have the same rights. So if a judge says that the police violated somebody’s rights by illegally searching them or coercing them to make a statement, she’s protecting the rights of all of us, not just the accused. Occasionally, by upholding the Constitution, someone accused of a crime is not able to be prosecuted. Typically, the judge making that decision isn’t happy about it, but sees the greater good in protecting the Constitutional rights of all citizens. Judges should be applauded for this, not attacked. It takes a judge of strong character to issue unpopular decisions and perhaps even risk losing their jobs because they feel the Constitutional rights of all of us are more important than the results in just one case.
Good lawyers who do criminal defense work know this, of course. We spend our professional careers challenging violations of our clients rights and standing up to authority figures on behalf of unpopular causes and unpopular clients. When judges do the right thing, we’d like to think they’d be recognized for their courage, but, sadly, that is seldom how it works. As you make your decision on who to vote for this spring in these judicial elections, don’t be swayed by ads that claim their candidate is “tough on crime” or that their candidate protects the Constitution by ruling against “criminals”. The best judges on criminal cases are the ones that carefully apply the Bill of Rights to a set of facts and work to insure that the rights of all of us are protected.