SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

October 15, 2013

A look at what others are saying

The following are excerpts from editorials from other newspapers across New England:

The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures of “persons, houses, papers and effects” by government is one of the bulwarks of our free society. The amendment goes on to say that “Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be searched.”

Probable cause, however, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Reasonable people don’t always agree upon just what constitutes probable cause. Nor, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, can a precise definition of probable cause be applicable in every case exist. Determining probable cause will always be a balancing act between the need to protect the public from potential harm and the right of citizens to be free of arrest on unsubstantiated charges. For that reason, citizens and law enforcement alike should welcome the state Supreme Court’s upcoming consideration of Lahm v. Farrington. Its decision could add clarity to the law, improve police practices and protect citizens.

The case involves a man who claims he was unfairly arrested and detained on sexual assault charges because the Tilton police failed to adequately investigate the claims of a witness whose truthfulness was later called into question. Based on witness testimony later determined to be inadequate to show probable cause, Kenneth Lahm was arrested, removed from his home by a SWAT team and held in jail over a weekend in 2008. The arrest, Lahm contends, harmed his reputation and cost him legal fees. It could have been avoided, Lahm’s lawyer said, had the police made a minimal attempt to verify the alleged victim’s story.

Some see the case as an attempt to require the police to either go beyond probable cause and determine facts prior to an arrest or risk being sued for negligence. Lose the case, Assistant Senior Attorney General Stephen Fuller argues, and “the ability of the state to protect its citizens, particularly in the domestic violence arena will be eviscerated.” Others in law enforcement share that view, one we believe is a bit overwrought.

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