The Israeli Supreme Court's Stop Sign for the Police

In precedent-setting ruling, Israel's Supreme Court rules police must inform suspects of their right to refuse unreasonable searches.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an important warning to the Israel Police, a stop sign, in effect. In a precedent-setting ruling, the court outlined the law's limits when the police search citizens and their property. Until this ruling, such limits were few.

Unless the police have a reasonable suspicion justifying a search, they must now inform suspects of their right to refuse such an action. And suspects must be told that their refusal won't be held against them.

Israel police.
Moti Kimche

This case stems from the persistence of one man, Avraham Ben-Haim, who the police discovered was carrying a knife. He appealed his conviction for illegal possession of the weapon to the district court and then to the Supreme Court, where this week's decision was handed down by a panel headed by court President Dorit Beinisch, who officially retired late last month.

The law previously barred the police from conducting searches without a reasonable suspicion, but the Supreme Court has now imposed clearer safeguards to protect this right. It ruled that any evidence illegally seized cannot be admitted into evidence. The court acquitted Ben-Haim after ruling that the search in question was illegal.

In recent years, the police have used excessive violence, even against innocent people. Improper body searches and searches of belongings have become common practice, often without any apparent reason. After this week's ruling, police officers will have to think twice before infringing on anyone's dignity or privacy.

The ruling ends the police's widespread practice of ignoring the legal limits on searches and the requirement for a warrant. It's unfortunate Israel needed a Supreme Court order to get the police to observe the country's laws. Even without such a court decision, the police have an obligation to follow the law.

Now members of the public know they have the right to object to a police officer's whim, and if there is no reasonable suspicion, they will have the complete right to refuse a search, which can be humiliating and sometimes even violent.

With this week's decision, Beinisch, in one of her last rulings (joined by justices Edna Arbel and Yoram Danziger ), made an important contribution to the protection of human rights and human dignity in Israel. Now all citizens have the obligation to demand their rights, even when confronted by the police. And the police have the obligation to observe the letter of the law.

Read this article in Hebrew.