For decades we have looked to a web of Supreme Court decisions as the ultimate safety net to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction or detention and to shield us all from governmental abuse in the criminal process.
This safety net, fraying for years, has begun to unravel with alarming speed since the retirement last summer of Justice William Brennan Jr., the great champion of the individual in the grip of the state. Brennan’s replacement, Justice David Souter, has solidified a majority that seems in a hurry to accommodate police and prosecutors by devaluing rights.
The coalitions change, with only Chief Justice William Rehnquist voting against the criminal defendant in virtually every case. But the erosion of important rights proceeds, restrained neither by adherence to precedent nor by deference to the law-making role of the Congress.
A recent example-especially telling because the Court accepted the flimsiest of justifications for prolonging wrongful detention of innocent suspects-is the 5-4 decision in Riverside v. McLaughlin on May 13. The Court held that police could routinely jail suspects for up to 48 hours before bringing them in front of a judge to determine whether there was probable cause to arrest them.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who usually sides with Rehnquist, aptly characterized the result in his dissent: "Hereafter a law-abiding citizen wrongfully arrested may be compelled to await the grace of a Dickensian bureaucratic machine, as it churns its cycle for up to two days-never once given the opportunity to show a judge that there is absolutely no reason to hold him, that a mistake has been made."