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Court Eases Seizure of Obscene Materials : No Special Proof Required for Movies and Books, Justices Find

April 23, 1986|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, easing the way for police to seize films and books they believe are obscene, ruled Tuesday that the constitutional requirements for warrants to search for such material are no greater than those for drugs, weapons and other contraband.

The court said in a 6-3 decision that authorities seeking warrants need show only--as in other cases--that there is a "fair probability" they will find evidence of a crime.

The justices reversed a New York state court ruling that said the Constitution required special proof for seizing such things as books and movies.

Case Involved Video Store

"We have never held or said that such a 'higher' standard is required by the First Amendment," Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority.

The court upheld the seizure of five sexually explicit videocassette movies--including "California Valley Girls" and "Debbie Does Dallas"--that authorities in Erie County, N.Y., sought as evidence in an obscenity case against operators of a local video store.

Rehnquist said that, contrary to the state court finding, the justices' review of affidavits police submitted describing the movies provided "more than enough" evidence to support a warrant.

In dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., and John Paul Stevens, said the state court ruling should have been upheld. The police affidavits lacked sufficient detail to support a warrant, the dissenters said.

Some Limits Established

In past decisions, the justices have recognized that the Constitution requires some restrictions on the seizure of books and films. For example, the court has placed limitations on mass confiscation of such materials and has required prompt judicial determination of whether seized materials are obscene.

Sexually explicit material is protected under the constitutional guarantees of free speech and expression--unless it is found to be legally obscene. Under a 1973 court ruling, obscenity is defined as a work that appeals primarily to prurient interest in sex, with patently offensive depictions of sexual acts and, on the whole, lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

The case before the court represented a new test of how much evidence authorities need before they can seize suspect books and films. The dispute drew added interest in the wake of the swift growth of the video rental industry, where adult movies are widely available along with other films.

Added Requirements Dropped

The court's ruling (New York vs. P.J. Video, 85-363) left intact its previous decisions limiting seizures of allegedly obscene material. But it said there is no need to add new requirements for police seeking warrants in such cases.

The justices noted specifically that, contrary to one lower court ruling, there is no requirement that a judge personally view an allegedly obscene film before issuing a warrant authorizing their seizure.

"We think that a reasonably specific affidavit describing the content of a film generally provides an adequate basis for the magistrate to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the film is obscene, and whether a warrant authorizing seizure (should be) issued," Rehnquist wrote.

In other action, the justices:

--Ruled 8 to 1 that the federal government may withhold tax refunds due low-income persons and apply the money to their delinquent child-support obligations. The court upheld a provision of a 1981 law aimed at absent parents who fall behind in paying such support.

In an opinion by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the court said that while the refunds, involving "earned-income credits," provided relief for low-income households, they did not outweigh the value of a government tax-refund "intercept" program securing child support from absent parents.

According to the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service intercepted an estimated $141.3 million in such refunds to help make child-support payments. (Sorenson vs. Secretary of Treasury, 84-1686).

--Placed strict limits on the advertising that ordinarily tax-exempt professional organizations may offer in their publications without paying taxes on the profits it earns. The court held unanimously that the American College of Physicians must pay taxes on profits from ads in its monthly journal, Annals of Internal Medicine. (U.S. vs. American College of Physicians, 84-1737).

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