The California State Supreme Court reached a decision in late July on one of the more interesting cases to come the Courtís way.† The vote was four to three, indicating a significant split, and the issue is as follows:†† Does a police officer who walks onto a private lawn, looks inside a bedroom and sees drug activity, have the right to search the house without a warrant?† The State Supreme Court said no.† The Court acknowledged that a guilty person was being set free, however, indicated that it is more important that Constitutional liberties be upheld.†
In this case, several police officers came to the home of Cayetano Camacho in June of 1997, having received an anonymous complaint about noise.† The officers arrived at the scene and did not hear loud noise emanating from his house or anywhere in the area.† They could have knocked on Mr. Camachoís door; however, they chose not to.† Instead, they walked into his yard and looked into his bedroom and saw Mr. Camacho busily bagging cocaine.†
In dissent, Chief Justice Ronald George argued that Mr. Camacho had no expectation of privacy, for he did nothing to attempt to create privacy for himself.† He did not have blinds or curtains covering the window, and in reality, anyone standing on the lawn and looking in could see what the officers saw.† Chief Justice George indicated that what was happening in Mr. Camachoís bedroom could be seen by anyone, including neighbors, standing on the lawn.
The majority concluded that whatever the neighbors could or could not see, the officers had no right to be where they were.† Itís not like they could see what they saw from the street, and they did have the option of knocking on his door to check out the noise complaint.† They chose not to do so; they walked over to a window, looked in, and saw Mr. Camacho and his cocaine.†
Let me make clear that Mr. Camacho is clearly no Rhodes scholar.† I would think that anyone engaging in such activity would invest in blinds or curtains or at least take some scotch tape and a towel and cover up the window rather than put oneself in a position where anyone looking inside the window could see the criminal activity that was taking place.† However, the law does not require one to be a Rhodes scholar, and the fact that Mr. Camacho was engaged in criminal activity was secondary to the fact that the police officers had no right to be where they were.† If they have no right to see it, it doesnít get seen.†
One of the aspects of criminal law that bothers people I talk to from time to time is that those who are guilty of crimes are sometimes freed because things were not done in a constitutional fashion.† To me, this is the strength of our system.† You either do things right or you donít get to keep the fruits of what youíve done.††† If a police officer knows that no matter how he does something, the person is going to end up in jail, there is no motivation for the police officer to do things the right way.†
There are many countries that allow officers to do what they want to do, and the individual, in effect, has no rights.† That is not the case here.† In this country, I am happy and proud to say, even though the guilty person gets to go free once in a while, our rights are protected, and therefore police officers are motivated to do the right thing, and do it the right way.† It is important to keep that motivation present so that officers will continue to strive to reach the difficult balance between engaging in appropriate and meaningful police activity and doing it in such a way as to not impinge on the rights of the individual.† Sometimes it means that the guilty go free, and this is one of those times.† It is my belief that the alternative would be far worse.