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Posted on September 4th, 2012, by

Today, the problem of public safety and privacy is one of the most challengeable problems because, on the one hand, the public safety and privacy were traditionally basic civil rights which are protected by the US Constitution, while, on the other hand, the growing security concerns often force law enforcement agencies and policy makers to take decisions which may violate public safety and privacy rights of individuals. In such a situation, it is extremely important to keep balance between the public safety and privacy and the prevention of crimes or socially dangerous behavior. In other words, it is necessary to ensure the prevention of crimes along with protection of fundamental human rights. However, it is very difficult to balance the prevention of the violation of law and the protection of privacy rights.

In this respect, it is worth mentioning the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision in the case of Patterson, whose privacy right the court decided to be violated.

On Wednesday, February 9, 2005, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the University of Maine Public Safety Department for their illegal search of their student Joshua Patterson’s car. Patterson and his state-appointed lawyer Seth Harrow argued that when the University of Maine Public Safety Sgt. Robert Norman asked Patterson to roll down the window of his parked but running car shortly after midnight on New Year Eve, he violated Patterson’s Fourth Amendment rights. To put it more precisely, according to the Fourth Amendment, citizens’ rights are protected in regard of the protection of citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. In such a way, the violation of Patterson’s privacy right proved to be crucial in regard to the charges against him. As a result, he was pleaded not guilty in charges of operating under the influence and driving with a suspended license.

According to the Supreme Court’s decision, the actions of Sgt Norman were illegal. In fact, Sgt. Norman noticed that Patterson’s car was running when he arrived. Before he got a report of his colleague, officer Amy Nickerson, who had noticed Patterson’s car travelling on the south end of campus. She saw him slow down and use his turn signal. He then disengaged the signal and proceeded down the road, which made her suspicious. She decided to follow the car, but did not turn on her emergency lights. She followed the car to the Steam Plant parking lot, where Patterson parked the car. Nickerson requested that an officer with an unmarked car continued surveillance of the vehicle. Sgt. Norman answered the request to proceed the surveillance. When he approached the car, the rear window was beginning to fog up, and there was what appeared to be a cigarette smoke coming from the passenger side window. After observing the vehicle for approximately five minutes Sgt Norman decided to approach the car because he suspected the driver and passenger were drinking and smoking, or using drugs since they were sitting in the car for a long time. He tapped on the driver’s side window and asked to roll down the window. When Patterson opened the door Sgt Norman smelled cigarette smoke and alcohol, and Patterson was later charged with OUI. He was also charged with operating under a suspended license due to previous OUI incident and a previous charge of possession alcohol by a minor.

In the court, Patterson pleaded not guilty to the charges and filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained after he was told to roll down his window. Eventually, he was pleaded not guilty. In this respect, it should be said that Patterson and his lawyer referred to the violation of Patterson’s privacy right under the Fourth Amendment. Patterson stood on the ground that he was forced by the officer to open the window and he had undergone illegal search and seizure.

In response, the attorney referred to the similar case of the State of Maine v. Mark S. Brewer, in which the accused was pleaded guilty. The attorney laid emphasis on the similarities of both cases. To put it more precisely, the court decided the incident involving Brewer had not been a search and seizure, and Brewer could not have evidence suppressed. In this case, undercover cops in civilian clothing walked to the car they which they had been following parked in a church parking lot. The officers revealed their badges as they were approaching the car, and they did not tell anything until they reached the car and they began questioning the occupants. The court viewed agents displaying the badges as identification of officers, which they used to show Brewer that they were police officers. In addition, they were not wearing uniform and weapon.

At first glance, there is no substantial difference between the two cases. The attorney insisted on the similarity of the cases, but, eventually the court rejected the similarity of the cases. Instead, the case of Patterson was different. In this respect, it is worth mentioning several points. First of all, Sgt Norman was wearing a uniform, he was armed and, what is more, he made verbal contact with him. Patterson said that because Norman spoke loudly enough to be heard above  the engine and through the window, and because he commanded, rather than requested, that the window be rolled down, that this was a seizure, since all of these factors would make anyone feel like they were not free to leave.

In such a way, the search and seizure were defined by the court as being illegal. However, regardless of the fact that the court ruled in his favor, the OUI was still placed on Patterson’s driving record, and he still had to go through the OUI process, though the charge did not appear on his legal record and he did not receive the jail time or more significant fines due to his victory in court. Consequently, Patterson failed to fully escape the punishment. On the other hand, it is obvious that the court’s decision clearly indicates to the violation of his rights by Sgt Norman. In this respect, it should be said that the decision of the court is grounded on undeniable facts, but the problem is that, in spite of the violation of his rights, Patterson was punished and he suffered substantial financial losses and psychological sufferings. Obviously, he had to spend time on the OUI process and the case definitely had a negative impact on his psychological state.

At the same time, the police officer who actually violated his rights remains unpunished. This fact reveals the imperfectness of the existing justice system. Moreover, this case and its effects may be viewed as evidences of the violation of human rights which are not prevented or punished. Such a situation is very dangerous because, potentially, the violation of human rights can become systematic if there no punishment or effective preventive measures to stop further violation of human rights by police officers. At this point, the issue of violation of public safety and privacy right becomes highly controversial.

On the one hand, there is Patterson, who turns out to be a victim since his privacy right was violated. It proves beyond a doubt that public safety and privacy rights are fundamental rights which are protected by the US Constitution. Consequently, they cannot be violated by law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, it is necessary to take into consideration conditions in which police officers work. In actuality, police officers are often faced with interpretation of the law in an environment of ever-changing circumstances and they do not always have time and lawyers to review, consider and decide after the fact that every step was taken was correct.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the case of the State of Maine v. Patterson revealed a serious problem concerning the violation of public safety and privacy rights. In fact, these rights can be violated by law enforcement agencies and people are often unaware of the fact that there rights are violated. At the same time, police officers are not always able to consider every step, when they have to act fast and take decisions immediately.

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