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Losing the right to privacy


ON Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court again chopped a hunk out of what remains of the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. A 6-3 majority ruled that a short-term visitor to a home or apartment doesn't have a reasonable expectation of privacy -- meaning, of course, that neither does the homeowner or renter.

A police officer was told by an informant that two men were measuring drugs in a garden apartment. The officer managed to get a peek in the window through a gap in the blinds, saw what he believed to be two men bagging cocaine, left and came back with a warrant to search the premises.

According to the Minnesota Supreme Court which had the case first, the officer climbed over bushes, crouched down outside a window and peered into the apartment through a small gap in the blinds. The state supreme court determined that the officer's actions violated the Fourth Amendment and threw out the conviction.

Majority opinion

The nation's highest court disagreed. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion for the majority. Because the two men engaged in measuring out cocaine were not overnight guests of the woman who leased the apartment, they cannot have an expectation of privacy, he wrote.

While we understand the government's concern about illegal drugs, this logic slices the law pretty thin. Transparently thin. This is clearly jurisprudence aimed at a conclusion. The high court was not going to let these men free, no matter how the Fourth Amendment's protections had to be twisted.

If the renter had invited a lover over for an afternoon delight, would there be no reasonable expectation of privacy? Does that mean that unless the renter asked the lover to stay overnight, the renter would not be secure from unreasonable searches? What if you invite your friends into your home to plan a political campaign to beat an incumbent city councilman, could the police peek in your windows to spy on what the group was planning?

In trashing a visitor's rightful expectation of privacy from the outside world, the court trashed the homeowner's right too. This decision creates bad law, law that puts all of us in jeopardy.

Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, has a national reputation for First Amendment commentary. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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