Major hit to your Fourth Amendment right – protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government

“Looking back at human history, the liberal democratic experiment — with its Enlightenment-derived belief in the capacity of individuals possessed of certain inalienable rights to shape their destinies in liberty through the exercise of their will — is but a brief interlude. Far more lasting have been the eras of infallible sovereignty, absolute power derived from God, domination and serfdom, and subjection to what Isaiah Berlin called ‘the forces of anti-rational mystical bigotry’.”

-Roger Cohen

In the study of physics, there is a fundamental law of nature called the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy. Simply put, the law states that, as time goes on, the world around us naturally evolves into a state of higher disorder. Think about your desk at work. Left to its own devices, the once orderly desk will become messier and more cluttered as time progresses even though you had no intention of this happening. The only way to stop it from reaching a state of absolute chaos is to take a few moments and actively work to reorganize it. Crucially, this requires effort, without it, the desk cannot be restored to its original state of cleanliness – it won’t happen on its own.

This law applies to every physical system (like the desk) in the universe; without the constant input of effort, the world devolves into less favorable states.

There appears to be a law of entropy for ‘democratic systems’ as well. Left to its own devices, liberal democratic regimes will devolve into a state of disorder as time progresses. This happens for the simple reason that state actors naturally tend to overreach in their authority and circumvent or even undermine the citizenry’s protection and freedoms. In other words, all democracies have a natural tendency to shift towards non-democratic authoritarian systems of governance. The rate at which this occurs can be slow or rapid, but all governments follow this trend as rulers, lawmakers, and political bigwigs seek to maximize their own power. Even in a country that places such a high price on freedom – like the U.S. – the law of democratic entropy can be seen in action. Obvious examples of the U.S. government impinging on its citizens rights and therefore contributing to the erosion of democratic values include blanket surveillance of digital communication by the NSA or the suspension of certain due process rights in instances involving terrorism.

A less obvious example is the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that evidence found by police officers after illegal stops can now be used in court against a defendant if the suspect has an outstanding warrant unconnected to the conduct that prompted the stop in the first place. The law, prior to this ruling, held that any evidence found by law enforcement after violating a citizens Fourth Amendment rights was the fruit of a poisonous tree and therefore inadmissible in court. As such, police officers would take care to honor a suspect’s rights knowing that if a search and seizure was conducted improperly, the evidence would be tossed out and their investigative efforts would be nullified. This created the proper incentive scheme for law enforcement and allowed ordinary people to live their lives without being subjected to intrusive and degrading police stops.

No more. According to the ruling in Utah v. Strieff, the police can stop someone without cause or reasonable suspicion and search them as long as that person has a warrant – which the officers would check after the stop was conducted and the citizen’s rights violated.

Edward Strieff, the defendant in the case, was illegally stopped after leaving a house that was supposedly a hub of drug activity. The officer asked for his identification and found that Mr. Strieff had an outstanding “small traffic warrant”. The officer then searched Mr. Strieff and found drugs on his person. The law now allows these illegal stops to occur as long as they can be justified after the fact.

It is shocking that the Supreme Court – a legal entity specifically entrusted with the responsibility to preserve the integrity of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights – was so willing to allow the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment for the entire population in order to take down a low-level drug offender. But this is how the law of democratic entropy operates. Government entities systematically work to erode the practical structure of democracy. Perhaps one day, the Fourth Amendment will be scrapped altogether. Individuals that comprise the state may justify their rulings and policy decisions however they wish, but the end result is that western liberal democracy starts to look more and more like middle-eastern authoritarianism. In this case, it happens slowly and subtly, but its progression is relentless.

However, the law of entropy also states that effort on the part of others can prevent the inexorable march toward disorder and – in this case – domination by a sovereign power. Informed and enlightened citizens can prevent government overreach and the erosion of democracy by exercising their right to vote and removing powerful state actors from their positions. But the citizenry must recognize the threat and act swiftly before the devolution becomes irreversible.

In a powerful dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that whether you are white or black, “your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights” and in that way, “unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives.”

* Information gleaned from:

Sherene G.

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