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Scalia's legacy of defending criminal suspects' rights

Our readers have heard by now that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away recently at age 79. Scalia had served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1986, and in that time issued numerous majority opinions, as well as a mountain of fierce dissents.

He had a well-deserved reputation as a conservative, so it may surprise readers to know that many of his votes over the years were in support of the pro-criminal defense provisions in the Constitution, especially those contained in the Bill of Rights.

An article in Slate contains some examples of Scalia’s defense of the Fourth and Sixth Amendments, one of which we will summarize here.

As readers know, the Fourth Amendment primarily focuses on limiting the government’s ability to search and seize individuals and their property. For example, it requires that police obtain a search warrant before searching a criminal suspect’s home, with several exceptions. A 2001 case before the Supreme Court gave Scalia an opportunity to uphold this important protection of people’s privacy from abusive or arbitrary government intrusion.

The case, Kyllo v. United States, had to do with police using a thermal-imaging device to scan the interior of a house from the outside. The government argued that no search warrant was necessary, because the device detected “heat radiating from the external surface of the house.”

Writing for the majority, Scalia thoroughly rejected that notion. He compared the heat-detecting device to a satellite or microphone picking up light or sounds from the house, which would require a warrant.

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