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Did Congress Pass a Bill Violating the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution mandates that all citizens of the United States are granted protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. This means law enforcement and other authorities are bound by certain restrictions and guidelines when it comes to conducting searches in order to look for evidence of a crime being done, such as obtaining a search warrant or developing “probable cause” to make an arrest.

This protection is what has protected citizens from unlawful and unreasonable arrests and detainment for centuries, however a new bill could jeopardize that. A few weeks ago, President Trump signed House Joint Resolution into law after the bill received overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle in Congress. The new law gives responsibility for the Washington Metropolitan Area Interstate Compact (WMATA) rail system over to the newly created Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, alleviating the Federal Transit Agency of this responsibility.

However, buried deep within the bill is a small snippet of text which reads: “In performing its duties, the Commission […] may: Enter upon the WMATA Rail System and […] any lands, waters, and premises adjacent to the WMATA Rail System, including, without limitation, property owned or occupied by the federal government, for the purpose of making inspections, investigations, examinations, and testing as the Commission may deem necessary to carry out the purposes of this MSC Compact, and such entry shall not be deemed a trespass.”

While this wording is extremely vague, it appears to give the new Commission the ability to enter land and premises that are adjacent to any WMATA rails without any sort of due process or need to obtain a warrant. The bill expressly states that such entry is not considered trespassing. Essentially what this means is that if the new safety commission finds it prudent to enter your home, even on just a mere hunch that something on your property may pose a threat to the rail system, authorities don’t have to request permission or get a justified approval from the courts.

It’s fairly easy to see the logic of the bill: the rail transportation in and out of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area is a vital piece of infrastructure that thousands of people depend on every day. Ensuring traveler safety should be one of the highest priorities. However, allowing authorities to search the properties which neighbor these rail lines without a warrant can only set a bad precedent for Americans and their right to privacy. If Congress can legislate this important right away from a few individuals in the Washington area, how long will it be until they do the same for people who live near highways or waterways? When will other areas across the country follow suit?

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) was one of just five members of Congress who voted against this bill, and afterwards tweeted “Only 5 of us voted against bill allowing [government] to enter/search private property in parts of VA, MD & DC w/o warrant.” A total of 399 members of Congress voted in favor of this bill, with 29 more abstaining.

Whether this law remains in effect or is struck down later in the Supreme Court remains to be seen, but for now it certainly appears as though a Constitutionally-granted right may have just been snatched away, even if it’s from just a select few people.

Have you recently been arrested and charged with a crime? Has law enforcement conducted a search of your person, home, or car? A Scranton criminal defense lawyer can help you effectively fight back. Contact the Law Offices of William D. Thompson today at (570) 666-1068 and let us review your options with you today!