U.S. Supreme Court Hands Down Two Pro-Property Rights Decisions

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Commentary, Press Releases, Property Rights

Today the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two cases that should help citizens protect themselves against government intrusion into their property rights.

Los Angeles v. Patel asked whether the Fourth Amendment allows governments to pass a law that authorizes law enforcement to conduct searches of private property (specifically, hotel registers that include guest information) without either a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing.  In a 5-4 decision, the majority held that such a law is unconstitutional on its face if it fails to give property owners a way to have a neutral party determine – before the search takes place – whether probable cause exists to believe that the search is necessary.  Because the Los Angeles ordinance at issue required property owners either to consent to the search or to face immediate arrest for refusing their consent and because the ordinance did not provide any way to have a neutral third-party evaluate the reasonableness of the law enforcement officer’s search request, the ordinance violated the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.

This is a tremendously important case for the Freedom Center and our client, Ron Calzone, who is challenging a Missouri statute that purports to authorize certain law enforcement officials to stop and search commercial vehicles even if the officer has no reason at all to believe that the driver or the vehicle is violating any law.  When Calzone refused to allow an unconstitutional search of his truck, a Missouri Highway Patrol officer cited him with a criminal offense for refusing to comply with the officer’s order – a result that the majority opinion in Patel both anticipates and condemns.  The Freedom Center already believed that it was likely to win Calzone’s challenge against Attorney General Koster, Governor Nixon, and the Missouri Highway Patrol, and the Patel decision significantly improves our likelihood of success.

Horne v. Department of Agriculture involved a federal program that in certain years required raisin growers in California to hand a large percentage of their annual crop over to the government.  The raisin farmers claimed that this program violated the Fifth Amendment’s “Takings Clause,” which forbids government to take someone’s property without paying “just compensation.”  The government responded that the Takings Clause only applied to real property, such as land, and not personal property, or the stuff that people tend to keep on their land.  Eight of the justices agreed that the Takings Clause does, indeed, forbid the government to simply take ownership of personal property unless it will pay the owner just compensation for doing so (only Justice Sotomayor dissented on this point).  Five of the justices also agreed that the amount the government must pay the raisin growers has already been established, meaning there is no need for lower courts to have additional proceedings to calculate that amount – three justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan) contended that additional proceedings should be necessary to determine the proper compensation.

Horne is important because for decades government officials have been using every argument imaginable to reduce the scope of constitutional protections for private property.  In this case, the government had argued that its requirements were merely a regulation on how the farmers were permitted to use their land, and that the government had not truly taken from them anything of real value.  Eight justices today put an end to that way of thinking.  This raises the bar for constitutional protections of property rights – and it is a bar that sorely needs raisin… I mean, raising.