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Colorado court right to block access to records

The Colorado Supreme Court hasn’t declared a right to own a meth lab. But its ruling in the case of a suspected methamphetamine manufacturer did declare a right that, for most of us, is infinitely more important.

In a landmark ruling, the highest court yet to consider the question ruled Monday a request for a search warrant to seize bookstore records of customer purchases must present a “compelling need” – a high legal standard. The need must outweigh the chilling effect the warrant’s execution would have on free speech, as well as the average citizen’s ability to freely explore a variety of media and exercise the “right to read and receive ideas and information.” The court also found the Colorado Constitution requires a bookseller be given a hearing on the search warrant before the search is conducted.

Police had been granted a warrant in their attempt to link a suspect, through his book purchases, to two books on constructing a methamphetamine lab. Although the court’s opinion noted each case must be evaluated on its unique facts, the unanimous justices had no reservations about overturning the lower court’s decision and setting a precedent lawyers and judges nationwide have been awaiting for weeks.

The court prescribed a “balancing test” for similar future cases, and, showing their true understanding of the First Amendment’s importance in a disputatious nation built around controversial ideas, the justices ordered that police interest in a bookstore search be weighed not against a suspect’s privacy rights alone but against the “harm caused to constitutional interests by the execution of the search warrant.”

This decision will inevitably produce the familiar response that greets all assertions of Fourth Amendment rights: Who would challenge a search unless they had something to hide? But this tiresome chorus is nothing more than the mantra of those whose publicly appropriate opinions fit neatly within the set of non-controversial views overwhelming majorities will at least profess to believe. Such people enjoy a privilege to openly study, discuss and pursue their interests – a privilege not extended to the citizens this decision is designed to protect.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom for controversial ideas and the books that express them; society often does not. For this reason, people can easily have legitimate reasons – such as business strategy, academic study or even personal curiosity – for purchasing books about topics they would rather their neighbors not know about. What a person – or majority of people – might say about the moral rightness of those books is irrelevant to the Constitution’s protection and fades before the simple truth that once-reviled ideas can become beneficial tenets of society as easily as once-unassailable doctrines can become discredited, except in the eyes of a small band of adherents.

The Colorado court noted the many other ways police can link a suspect to the scene of a crime. As always, the crime fighting methods that capture offenders without giving the innocent the least cause for alarm should be the law enforcement tools of a free society.

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