Manassas Park, Ct’d

Friday, December 29th, 2006

Here’s the district court’s decision in the Ruttenberg case.

And here’s some analysis from Fourth Amendment expert John Wesley Hall.

The immunity stuff is bad enough — and remember, Mr. Ruttenberg didn’t include any of the offtrack betting evidence in his motion.

But what I find striking is just how dismissive this judge is of the fact that Manassas Park police conducted a what was clearly a search for criminal misconduct under the auspices of an administrative inspection. They couldn’t get a criminal search warrant. So they brought in a few Alcohol Beverage Control officials, making the entire exercise a dubious “inspection,” and conducted the search anyway.

Routine alcohol inspections don’t normally include ski-mask wearing cops storming the joint while pumping shotguns. Nor do they necessitate handcuffing customers.

This is a growing problem. Police are increasingly using non-criminal regulatory agencies inspection powers to get around the Fourth Amendment (see, for example, the city of Buffalo’s “Clean Sweep” program).

If, as the judge in Ruttenberg’s case has argued, it is not “unreasonable” for police to bring a 70+ member police-SWAT team to conduct what is supposed to be a routine inspection for compliance with the state’s alcohol laws, you have to wonder just what would constitute an unreasonable search.

And if his ruling stands, it sets a nasty precedent. It could enable police in Prince William County to conduct criminal searches of just about any business without a search warrant — just declare that the search isn’t really a search at all, it’s just a fire or alcohol or building code inspection.

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