Our view: The Supreme Court properly restored constitutional limits on the attorney general's reach beyond Arizona's borders.
The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a critical constitutional principle last month, that even the most vexing problems of the day - such as rampant human smuggling - never should become an excuse for a state official to routinely seize money passing between people in other states and foreign countries and then expect them to prove they are innocent of wrongdoing.
The state's highest court struck down an effort by Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard to target cash transfers between 28 other states and the Mexican state of Sonora. Such seizures took place without any direct evidence of criminal activity but with the hope of disrupting human smuggling efforts in this state.
Since 2003, Goddard's office has used a program called "damming warrants," which allows law enforcement to automatically seize wire transfers from Arizona into Mexico that follow specific patterns that suggest (but don't prove) they are payments for human smuggling operations.
Goddard has told us that millions of dollars from such seized transfers never have been claimed, which he views as smugglers walking away from their ill-gotten gains. But Tribune writer Gary Grado has reported about some innocent bystanders who did come forward and were forced to wait for weeks for the state to return money wrongly seized.
In 2006, the attorney general sought to expand the program to include wire transfers in other states, under the theory that those potential smuggling payments were bringing illegal immigrants into Arizona as well. In January 2007, we noted on these pages the dangers of such logic. State prosecutors could seize money transfers between some U.S. location and anywhere else in the world as long as there was a hypothetical connection to some crime in Arizona, bypassing the Fourth Amendment and the federal government's supremacy on international diplomacy.
A state appeals court had ruled in Goddard's favor. But the Supreme Court properly restored constitutional limits on the attorney general's reach beyond Arizona's borders.