GWEN IFILL: The Supreme Court today decided that the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to go door-to- door without getting government permission. In a separate case, the court also ruled that police may search bus passengers for drugs or other evidence of a crime without first informing them of their legal rights. Both decisions have potentially far-reaching legal implications.
Here to explain why is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Court reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Jan, welcome back.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Let's start with the Jehovah Witness door to door case. We call it a Jehovah Witness case because they are actually the ones being challenged. Does this now mean that any kind of door to door solicitation, whether it's girl scout cookie knocking or religious proselytizing or simply selling fuller brushes all of that is allowed?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It does unless a neighbor in the village of Stratton, Ohio unless a resident has posted a no solicitation sign in their window or by the front door or unless the resident says go away I don't want to hear from you. In his opinion today, Justice Stevens suggested that that was ample protection. He said in his opinion for the court that it's just as annoying or it may be just as annoying to hear an uninvited knock at the door as opposed to someone who may be carrying a permit. It's irrelevant, he said, to your annoyance level where whether you have a permit or not.
GWEN IFILL: This little town under 300 residents, Stratton, Ohio, how did this case get from there to the Supreme Court.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The town leaders in 1998 decided they wanted to protect their residents mostly retirees from criminals and con artists and people who may be trying to sell them a bill of goods. So they said that was their reasons for it so they passed this offered ordinance that would require canvassers, people who are trying to explain or promote a cause, to go down to the mayor's office and fill out a form and register before they could go and ring a doorbell and explain or promote whatever their cause may be.
Now the Jehovah's Witnesses who were active in this town filed suit. They said that this ordinance violated their First Amendment rights of free speech. And that worked its way through the courts. A lower court actually said no, that this ordinance was a legitimate interest on the part of the Stratton town leaders, that they had an interest in protecting their residents from crime and protecting their privacy. So they okayed the ordinance. So they took it up to the Supreme Court and then the court struck it down.
GWEN IFILL: Boiled down to a First Amendment versus a Fourth Amendment debate.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well -- not so much. I mean, no, this one was just solely based on the first amendment and whether or not it's, as Justice Stevens really emphasized in quite a sweeping ruling today, that our free society, the very notion of our free society turns on people being able to go and ring a door bell, the little people, as he called them in his opinion today, who may not have the big money for the fancy campaigns, that it turns on their ability to do that -- to ring the doorbell.
GWEN IFILL: Is what the town did wrong in the Justices' opinion, is what they did wrong was making themselves a too sweeping a ban or regulation on the people's ability to do this?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The court suggested if they had just stuck on their original idea, if they just said, "we're just going to apply this to people who are soliciting money or your Fuller Brush salesman trying to sell something, that maybe that would have been okay." But this was way more, you know, beyond that. I mean Justice Stevens said it would even apply to the neighbor who wanted to go across the street and ring the doorbell of a neighbor and say, "I think we need a new garbage collector." Or it would apply to somebody who just wanted to walk across the road on a Sunday afternoon to complain about the mayor. That person would have to go to the mayor's office to get a permit.
GWEN IFILL: Now, this wasn't one of those narrowly divided cases.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right.
GWEN IFILL: This was an 8-1 case as you point out with Justice Stevens writing the opinion. The dissenter was no mere dissenter -- the Chief Justice.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The Chief Justice - and he suggested this at the argument as well. He very strongly believed that the village had an interest in protecting its residents from criminals and con artists. And he detailed many examples of violent crimes that have been caused by people posing as door-to-door salespeople.
GWEN IFILL: For example?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, he specifically focused like he did at the argument on the crime that occurred in Hanford, New Hampshire, the two Dartmouth college professors who were brutally murdered allegedly by two teenagers who were posing as door-to-door canvassers saying that they were doing an environmental study seeking to gain access to the homes. Justice Rehnquist suggested in his dissent that that crime may have even been averted if this town in New Hampshire had had an ordinance similar to the one the court struck down today from Stratton.
GWEN IFILL: Now you say the court wrote in very broad terms with sweeping language is the term he used. Does this mean that this has legal significance beyond just the Jehovah's Witnesses even?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Sure. Had the court gone the other way, any village across the country could have passed a similar ordinance. It would have applied to not just Jehovah's Witnesses but people who were wanting to talk about politics or a candidate for the city council or somebody running against the mayor on, or as Justice O'Connor suggested at the oral argument, even the neighbor who wanted to go borrow a cup of sugar.
GWEN IFILL: The second case we're going to talk about talked about searching for drugs on an inter-state transport, as it were. Why in this case was a search conducted on a bus different from any other kind of search that would be conducted on a sidewalk, for instance? What was unique about that?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, when the Court is looking at whether or not a search violates the Fourth Amendment and is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, it considers all the circumstances of the case. So if you're on a bus and three police officers walk on the bus and one stands at the front and one stands at the back and one is walking down the aisle, which is what happened here, that's a lot different. It's a very different circumstance than if you're just on a sidewalk and an officer might walk up to you and say could I ask you a question. It may imply that you don't have as much choice to say no.
GWEN IFILL: The argument was that the very presence of these officers in a confined space left the impression among the people who were being searched that they didn't have a choice.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That's right. That's what the lower court ruled in this case. Now the Supreme Court in 1991 said police officers could do this without violating the Fourth Amendment as long as a person felt, a reasonable person, felt they could say no. The issue today was whether or not the police officers actually had to tell the passengers, "look, you can say no. You don't have to cooperate."
GWEN IFILL: Well, now because the court ruled that you don't have to say... you don't have to read them their rights or be anymore explicit than these officers were, does that mean people riding on buses have a lesser expectation of privacy than people on other modes of transport or walking down the street?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, Justice Kennedy would say no. He focused the whole opinion today on the fact that these officers were not acting in any coercive way. He said that they, you know, didn't brandish their weapons. They didn't yell at people. They spoke in quiet tones. They weren't, you know, they were plain-clothes officers. But the dissenters didn't see it that way at all, of course. I mean the dissent which was written by Justice Souter said there's no way a reasonable person who is sitting on the bus, who is asked by a police officer, can I ask you a question or can I look in your bag, would feel he could say no. Only an uncomprehending person would say no.
GWEN IFILL: Trace this case also to the Supreme Court. It started in Tallahassee Florida. This is not a hypothetical we've been talking about here.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That's right. It was a bus on its way to Detroit, stopped in Tallahassee. Three police officers got on, local cops got on and started asking the passengers questions, asked if they could search their bags. When they got to these two men, Christopher Jake and Clifton Brown they said can we search your bag. They said sure. The bag was fine and then the officer said do you mind if I check you out? So the first man opened his jacket and the officer patted him down. He found hard packages on his inner thigh, a pretty intrusive search there that he believed were drugged -- turned out they were. The man was arrested. He did the same routine for the next guy, found the same packages. The guy was arrested.
The men then moved to suppress that evidence which was cocaine. The federal appeals court agreed that that evidence was the result of this unreasonable seizure, that it violated the Fourth Amendment, that these men felt that they could not say no to this officer. So therefore that evidence could not be used against them. The court today reversed that and now the evidence can come in.
GWEN IFILL: One of the things that's interesting about this case is like everything else that's interesting in our world these days is that post 9/11 you wonder whether questions about searches and reasonable searches, reasonable searches or the debate by the Court is influenced by the idea that we are now in this investigatory climate in America. Was there any discussion about that either in the briefs or in the discussion?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That's a good question. In some ways this case did take on heightened significance. The Justice Department in the briefs in this case said it was important, you know, post September 11, to ensuring that law enforcement could continue to get on buses and protect citizens. The court, the majority didn't squarely address that today though Justice Kennedy did say that people participate for their own safety, people would agree to cooperate for their own safety and the safety of others but in dissent Justice Souter took issue with that. He said we realize, even a small child would realize the risks that we face nowadays, the word that he used, and that searches on airplanes, we understand that we have conditions to boarding a plane we have a search. But that hasn't gone down to the level of buses and trains. So he suggested that we have to be careful that we can't just apply some of the same standards, kind of the slippery slope argument.
GWEN IFILL: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thank you once again.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you.