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Supreme Court accepts border search case

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a search-and-seizure case linked to the U.S. war on terrorism, the Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will hear a case regarding police searches of cars entering the United States across the Mexican and Canadian borders.

The case deals with federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) taking apart vehicles they suspect may be smuggling drugs, weapons or people. A federal appeals court found the practice an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

Arguments are expected to be heard by the justices sometime in 2004, with a ruling expected by June.

The case involves a station wagon owned by Manuel Flores-Montano, which police stopped at the Mexican border with California in 2002. A search found 37 kilograms of marijuana hidden in the vehicle's gas tank, after the car had been dismantled by border agents.

Flores-Montano was arrested and charged with drug smuggling, but an appeals court said the seized marijuana could not be used as evidence against him. [U.S. v. Flores-Montano (02-1794)]

The Bush administration appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the government should be allowed to take security measures along the nation's often unprotected borders.

"The government's interest also extends to the prevention of smuggling of aliens and of bombs, explosives or other implements of terrorism that likewise may be concealed in gas tanks," wrote Solicitor General Theodore Olson in a brief to the court.

The case is one of at least five search-and-seizure appeals accepted by the court this fall. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens against "unreasonable searches and seizures."

One case on the current docket from Illinois deals with a police roadblock for a hit-and-run driver that turned up instead a suspected drunk driver.

Another case involves a SWAT-style raid in Nevada that netted illegal narcotics -- and an accused drug dealer who was caught in the shower. An appeals court said police should have waited longer after knocking on the door before they forced the door open.

All these cases could establish important precedents as the court prepares to decide whether to hear a number of pending legal challenges to the Bush administration's fight against terrorism.

"Law enforcement is telling the courts that in a post 9/11 world, the rules have changed," says David Yalof, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut and author of "Pursuit of Justices."

"They want more latitude to set up roadblocks, things like that, to prevent terrorism and other violent crimes. And it's unclear how the Supreme Court will respond to that kind of argument."


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