WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police officers seeking to search and question passengers on public buses do not have to tell them they have the right to refuse to cooperate, a decision that gives law enforcement more latitude in combating security threats in the U.S. ground transportation system.
By a 6 to 3 vote, the court agreed with the Bush administration that police officers did not violate the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures when they arrested two men after asking to search them and finding drugs during a random check for weapons and drugs aboard a cramped Greyhound coach.
Under the circumstances, a reasonable person would have felt free to decline the officers' request, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.
"There was no application of force, no intimidating movement, no overwhelming show of force, no brandishing of weapons, no blocking of exits, no threat, no command, not even an authoritative tone of voice," Kennedy wrote. "It is beyond question that had this encounter occurred on the street, it would be constitutional. The fact that an encounter takes place on a bus does not on its own transform standard police questioning of citizens into an illegal seizure."
Although the case involved domestic crime, the Justice Department implied in the government's appeal to the Supreme Court that restricting police searches could impede efforts to fight terrorism. The case attracted attention as an early test of how the court would balance the competing interests of individual freedom and public safety in the transportation context after Sept. 11. The terrorist hijackings exposed the vulnerability of airplanes -- hose passengers already must submit to random, warrantless searches and questions.
Though the court's opinion made no direct reference to those issues, supporters of the federal government's position said the ruling is in keeping with new realities.
"Clearly, public transportation systems are a prime target for terrorists, and a decision that upholds important police tools in protecting public transportation has to end up giving us more protection from terrorists," said Richard Samp, chief counsel to the Washington Legal Foundation, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the government's behalf.
In dissent, however, Justice David Souter, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, implied that the court had inappropriately equated the security situation aboard ground transportation with that facing the airlines and their customers.
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