James J. Kilpatrick

A policeman's lot, as Gilbert & Sullivan taught us, is usually not a happy one. With its unanimous opinion last week in Brigham City v. Stuart, the Supreme Court made a policeman's lot at least a little less unhappy.

Except for its usefulness to law enforcement, the case was monumentally unimportant. It merits your attention anyhow, if only because it set a term record for comity among the frequently warring justices. With barely a month of the '05 term to go, this appeal became the 36th case to be decided without a dissenting vote since the term began last October.

Think about it. Such comity! Such harmony! Chief Justice John Roberts is becoming the Great Uniter. His opinion, reversing the Supreme Court of Utah, drew agreeable nods from seven of his concurring colleagues and no more than a second-class grumble from Justice John Paul Grumpy. These days the sun shines bright upon their old and marbled home.

The case arose almost six years ago in Brigham City (pop. 17,300), 30 miles north of Salt Lake City. It appears from the record that some of the boys were whooping it up in a private residence at 3 o'clock on a Sunday morning. The revelry got out of hand. Neighbors complained, as neighbors will. Four officers arrived. They broke up the fun, arrested the revelers, and charged them with being drunk and disorderly. Once upon a time that would have been that, but Utah is not a western outpost anymore. Now they have lawyers out there.

Thus the defendants alertly pleaded that the cops had trampled upon their Fourth Amendment rights. The Constitution, in their view, says that every belligerent drunk in Utah has a constitutional right to be secure in his living room against "unreasonable" seizure. That's what it says, OK? Utah's Supreme Court limply agreed -- the case presented "a close and difficult call" -- and the city appealed. Last week the Supreme Court came down on the side of the city.

Chief Justice Roberts was unequivocal: "We think the officers' entry here was plainly reasonable under the circumstances. The officers were responding, at 3 o'clock in the morning, to complaints about a loud party. As they approached the house, they could hear from within 'an altercation occurring, some kind of a fight.' They heard 'thumping and crashing' and people yelling 'stop, stop' and 'Get off me!'"

The officers twice announced their presence. They could not be heard above the din. It was obvious that knocking on the front door would have been futile. Clearly, a fracas was taking place! Through a window, the officers saw "a juvenile, fists clenched, ... being held back by several adults."

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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