Thursday, December 11, 1997

US Supreme Court US v. Mendenhall 78-1821

Decided May 27, 1980

   DEA agents met with Mendenhall at the airport, questioned her briefly, and then she agreed to go with them to the DEA office, where she later consented to a search of her person (after being informed of her right to refuse).  The search uncovered heroin, and she was convicted at trial.  The conviction was appealed on grounds that the agents had insufficient evidence to detain Mendenhall.  The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, holding that the agents' contact wtih Mendenhall (to include her visit to the office and the search) was consensual.

   This decision clarified the definition of when a person is detained, saying that ""We adhere to the view that a person is 'seized' only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained," and "we conclude that a person has been 'seized' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave."  The decision also listed some of the factors which are to be taken into account in deciding whether this standard has been met.  It's pretty much the same list that the district attorney always runs through on direct examination at hearings on motions to suppress statements made without Miranda advisements.

Saturday, December 6, 1997

US Supreme Court Walter v. US 79-67

Decided June 20, 1980.

   A package containing obscene films (being illegally shipped in interstate commerce) was mistakenly delivered to the wrong address.  The unintended recipients opened the packaged, saw some descriptive labels and drawings on the films, but didn't view the actual films (one of them tried to hold a filmstrip up to the light so he could see what the film was, but couldn't make it out).  Then they called the FBI.  Agents arrived, and took possession of the films.  A couple months later, without ever trying to get a warrant, they watched the films and determined in their professional opinions that these were, in fact, pornographic.  Walter (the sender of the films) was subsequently arrested and convicted of multiple counts of not inviting the FBI to the party (otherwise known as "obscenity charges relating to the interstate transportation of 5 of the 871 films in the shipment").  

   Walter appealed, arguing that the viewing of the films was a search which violated the Fourth Amendment.

   The US Supreme Court agreed with Walter.  The court noted that Walter's expectation of privacy in the contents of the package had already been partially frustrated when private individuals opened the package (the Fourth Amendment does not protect against searches anyone other than the government and its agents).  The feds were entitled to rely on the information which the unintended recipients of the package had already discovered (the descriptive labels and drawings), but they weren't entitled to expand beyond that search (by viewing the films) unless there was some other justification for the search.  Although the labels and drawing created probable cause, there was no exigency.  Nor was there any other reason for searching without a warrant.

   This decision also contains some interesting discussion of the permissible scope of searches.  It boils down to a requirement that searches must be limited in scope by the terms authorizing the search.  Consent to search a garage does not allow the police to search the adjoining house.  A warrant to search for a refrigerator does not allow the police to open desk drawers.  A warrant (consent, exigency, whatever) isn't just a ticket to get into the house and search everything.  By the same token, although the police can rely on information obtained by a third person who conducted their own search, that third person's search doesn't give the police carte blanche to search everything.  

   In this case, the circumstances would have allowed the FBI to obtain a warrant, but they did not support a warrantless search.  Since there was no warrant, the evidence was suppressed and Walter's conviction was reversed.

Wednesday, September 3, 1997

US Supreme Court Delaware v. Prouse 77-1571

Decided March 27, 1979

   At about 7 pm, an officer saw a car driving down the road.  Since the officer wasn't doing anything, he decided to randomly stop the car to check for license and registration.  He didn't observe any moving or equipment violations, and didn't have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  During the stop, he found weed in the car.

   The US Supreme Court held that the stop violated the Fourth Amendment (go figure).  The court recognized that the state has an interest in catching unlicensed drivers, but reasoned that this interest is adequately served by checking for license/insurance/registration on stops where there's some reason to stop the car.  At the end of the decision, the court pointed out that it wasn't barring the use of checkpoints with this decision.  The difference is that checkpoints "do not involve the unconstrained use of discretion."

Wednesday, July 16, 1997

US Supreme Court Pennsylvania v. Mimms 76-1830

Decided December 5, 1977

   Mimms was stopped for driving with an expired license plate, and at the beginning of the traffic stop he was instructed to get out of the car.  There were no particular facts on the record to justify that instruction, it was simply something that the officer chose to do.  When Mimms got out of the car, the officer noticed a suspicious bulge in his clothing and searched him for weapons.  The bulge was a gun, Mimms was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon.

   He was convicted, but the conviction was reversed on appeal.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the initial stop was justified, and that once the bulge was observed the search was justified, but that removing Mimms from the car was unreasonable because there were no additional facts (beyond those justifying the traffic stop) to justify this seizure.

   The US Supreme Court reversed, upholding Mimms' original conviction.  In reaching this conclusion, the court balanced the government's substantial interest in the safety of law enforcement officers against Mimm's minimal privacy interest in sitting in the car.  The court held that it was reasonable for the officer to remove Mimms from the car without requiring additional facts beyond those which justified the initial stop.

Thursday, June 19, 1997

US Supreme Court US v. Santana 75-19

Decided  June 24, 1976

   THE hot pursuit case.  In this case, an undercover officer arranged to buy drugs from a suspect.  The suspect had him drive her to Santana's house, where she went inside and bought drugs with bills that the undercover officer had marked.  She came back outside with the heroin, and the undercover officer drove a couple blocks away and arrested her.  She told the officer that Santana had the money.

   Other officers went back to Santana's house to arrest her.  She was standing on the threshold of her house (which the court deemed to be a public place, allowing her to be arrested without a warrant).  The police attempted to apprehend her, and she retreaded into her home.  They chased her inside and completed the arrest.  She was found to be in possession of more heroin and of most of the aforementioned marked bills.  At her trial, she sought to exclude that evidence as the fruit of an unlawful entry into her home.

   The Supreme Court found the warrantless entry to be reasonable, saying that "a suspect may not defeat an arrest which has been set in motion in a public the expedient of escaping to a private place."

Wednesday, June 4, 1997

US Supreme Court South Dakota v. Opperman 75-76

Decided 7-6-76.

   This is the decision that gave us vehicle inventory searches (most lower courts had already upheld the validity of such searches, but this is when SCOTUS weighed in).

   Opperman's car was impounded for a parking violation, and at the impound yard an officer conducted an inventory of the valuables in the car (which were later taken to the police department for safekeeping).  During the search, the officer found weed in the glove compartment.  The owner of the car later collected his valuables from the police department, and was arrested for possession of marijuana.  He was convicted, and appealed.  The South Dakota Supreme Court overturned his conviction, holding that the inventory violated the federal fourth amendment.  The Supreme Court reversed the South Dakota Supreme Court, holding that inventories of impounded vehicles pursuant to standard police procedure are reasonable.  The court reasoned that inventory searches are conducted as more of a community caretaker function of the police than an enforcement function, and are necessary to ensure the protection of the owner's property while it remains in police custody, the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, the protection of the police from potential danger, and to aid in response to incidents of theft or vandalism or attempts to determine whether a vehicle has been stolen.

   The court discussed some general search & seizure stuff in this decision, stating that although vehicles are effects (and therefore protected by the fourth amendment), they are not afforded the same level of protection as houses because of their inherent mobility and because of the lesser expectation of privacy that people have in their vehicles compared to their houses.  The court also held that it had never subscribed to the notion that the fourth amendment prohibits all searches, or even all warrantless searches, but only unreasonable searches.

Sunday, June 1, 1997

US Supreme Court US v. Watson 74-538

Decided January 26, 1976.

   Watson was being investigated by a postal inspector for illegal use of credit cards, based on a reliable informant's tip.  The informant arranged a meeting with Watson, during which the informant was to give a signal if Watson had stolen credit cards.  The informant gave the signal, and Watson was arrested and taken outside of the restaurant.  The inspector found no credit cards on Watson's person, and asked him for consent to search his car (after obtaining a Miranda waiver).  Watson agreed, and the inspector warned him that anything found would "go against him," and asked again for consent.  Watson agreed, the inspector found stolen credit cards, and Watson was later convicted of possessing them.

   Watson appealed, arguing that his arrest violated the 4th Amendment because it was made without a warrant, and that his consent was involuntary because he had not been told he could refuse.  The 9th circuit agreed with him and reversed his conviction, and the prosecution appealed.

   The US Supreme Court reversed the 9th's ruling.  The court observed that there was no precedent for requiring a warrant for warrants made in a public place.  Obtaining a warrant for cases like these is certainly encouraged by the courts, but they do not require it.  Further, the court held that there was no illegal coercion and that although the court may consider whether as suspect was informed of his right to refuse consent as a factor, it's not a conclusive test of voluntariness.  Accordingly, Watson's conviction was reinstated.

Monday, May 12, 1997

US Supreme Court Michigan v. Mosley 74-653

Decided December 9, 1975

   Mosley was arrested by a Detroit PD detective who was investigating a couple of robberies.  He given a Miranda advisement and he initially waived his rights, but after a few questions he said that he didn't want to talk about the robberies (he did not ask for a lawyer, he just said that he didn't want to talk about the robberies).  The interrogation was promptly terminated.

   A couple hours later, a homicide detective interrogated Mosley about a murder.  The murder was entirely unrelated to the robberies, and the interrogation took place in a different location than the robbery interrogation had taken place.  Prior to the interrogation, Mosley was again advised of his Miranda rights (which he again waived).  Mosley made some incriminating statements, and was eventually convicted of murder.  He appealed his conviction, arguing that his statements should have been suppressed under Miranda.

   The US Supreme Court discussed the irrational extremes that would be possible under Miranda.  On one hand, it Miranda could be applied so that once a suspect has invoked his right to remain silent, the police may never again custodially interrogate him for any reason, about any case, at any time in the future.  And any statement made after the invocation of rights could be held to be a per-se violation of Miranda, even if the suspect knowingly and voluntarily waived his rights and made a statement.  On the opposite extreme, Miranda could be held to require that if a suspect invokes his rights then the police need only stop questioning for a moment, and then they may resume the very same interrogation.  I'm not making any of this up, it's all discussed in the decision.

   Obviously the Court didn't agree with any of the above possibilities.  They held that the critical safeguard of Miranda is a suspect's right to "cut off questioning," and so the test for the admissibility of post-advisement statements is whether that right was scrupulously honored.  The court also contrasted this case with a previous case from 1966 (Westover v. U.S.).  In Westover, a suspect was interrogated for a couple hours by state LEOs without being advised of his rights.  Then the feds took over, read him his rights, and he confessed.  The court at that time held that the interrogation by federal officials benefited from the pressures of the previous illegal interrogation, and that the advisement was too little, too late.  You can't interrogate someone, then read them Miranda, then use a subsequent waiver to rehabilitate (or continue) the earlier interrogation.

   This case was not like that one; in this case, the US Supreme Court held that the Detroit PD scrupulously honored Mosley's request to cut off questioning.  They didn't refuse to end the first interrogation and they didn't use repeated requested for new interrogations to wear down his resistance.  They immediately ceased interrogation when he invoked his rights, and the second interrogation happened after a significant passage of time and a renewed Miranda waiver, and was limited to a crime entirely unrelated to the first interrogation.  For these reasons, the Supreme Court held that Mosley's incriminating statements were admissible.

Thursday, April 3, 1997

US Supreme Court US v. Edwards 73-88

Decided March 26, 1974

   Edwards was arrested for attempting to break into the post office, and some paint chips on his clothing were of evidentiary value.  At the time he was arrested the police didn't have any clothes for him to wear, so they waited until the next morning (after they bought a shirt and pants) to seize his clothes as evidence.  At his trial, he objected to the admission of his clothes as evidence, saying that their warrantless seizure violated the Fourth Amendment.

   The US Supreme Court ruled that the ten hour delay between his arrest and the seizure of his clothing didn't matter, because he (and his clothing) had been in police custody the entire time.  The court held under those circumstances, the police were entitled to seize the clothing with or without probable cause (it should be noted that this rested on the fact that the arrest was lawful, pursuant to probable cause).

   The court didn't rule that a warrant would never be required when a suspect was already in custody, but it encapsulated its entire ruling with one sentence: "While the legal arrest of a person should not destroy the privacy of his premises, it does—for at least a reasonable time and to a reasonable extent— take his own privacy out of the realm of protection from police interest in weapons, means of escape, and evidence."

Wednesday, March 12, 1997

US Supreme Court US v. Robinson 72-936

Decided December 11, 1973.

   Officer Jenks stopped Robinson for driving on a revoked license (he knew his license was revoked froman investigation a few days earlier), and placed him under arrest.  During a search incident to arrest, Jenks found heroin Robinson's pocket.  Robinson was convicted, but the court of appeals reversed his conviction on the grounds that Jenks had no basis for believing that evidence of the offense charged (revoked license) would be found in a search.  The court held that for this reason, the search incident to arrest should have been limited to a pat down for weapons (like a Terry search), and the heroin should have been supressed.

   The prosecution appealed.  The US Supreme Court held that in the case of a lawful arrest based on probable cause, the person has been seized and a full search of the person does not need any further justification.  Although the preservation of evidence and the protection of the officer (particularly in light of the prolonged proximity with a suspect that accompanies a custodial arrest) are the underlying justifications for this exception to the warrant requirement, the court found that there was no need to actually articulate one of those reasons to make the search reasonable; the mere fact of the arrest does that.  The court of appeals was reversed.

   In light of this decision, Gant is all the more interesting.  But the authority to search a person incident to arrest has generally been more stable than the search of the area surrounding the person.  Besides, Gant was very much a case where law enforcement had it's card pulled by the court for trying to push our limits.

Thursday, March 6, 1997

US Supreme Court Cady v. Drombrowski 72-5864

Decided 6-21-73.

   Drombowski was a Chicago police officer who was involved in a single car DUI accident in a small town in Wisconsin.  He was arrested (and later hospitalized... he wasn't so much drunk as he was completely shit faced), and his car (a rental) was towed to a private, unsecured garage and left outside.  The arresting officers were under the impression that Chicago officers were required to carry their service revolvers at all times, but they hadn't been able to find it either on his person or in the glove box or passenger compartment of his car.  This was an area of grave concern for the small town cops, as they were afraid that the revolver would fall into the wrong hands.

   While one of the arresting officers stood guard over Drombowski in the hospital, the other went to the private garage to search for and secure the weapon.  He searched the car a little more thoroughly this time, but he still didn't find a gun.  Instead, he found blood-soaked clothes (including a police uniform), a bloody nightstick and flashlight, and similar evidence that something was not right.  When Drombowski was eventually sober enough to answer questions about all of that, he lawyered up.  Oddly, after talking to his lawyer, he directed police to a body in a dump on his brother's farm.

   The police also noticed a lot of blood in another car near where the body was found (this was Drombowski's car, which had broken down right before he got the rental).  All of this led to Drombowski being convicted of first degree murder.  He appealed his conviction, on the grounds that everything should have been suppressed because the search of his rental car was unreasonable.

   The Supreme Court noted that the officer who searched the car was ignorant of any murder, and wasn't looking for evidence of a crime at all (the police already had all the evidence they needed for a DUI, and the officer was attempting to retrieve a weapon for the sake of keeping it from being stolen).  The court recognized that many of a police officer's duties are "totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute," and labelled these duties as "community caretaking functions."

   The court held that this search was reasonable as community caretaking, but didn't offer much guidance on the actual limits of community caretaking.  The court did note that the fact that less intrusive means (like posting a guard at the rental car) might have also accomplished police's goals does not by itself make the search unreasonable.  Drombowski's conviction was upheld.

Friday, January 10, 1997

Colorado Supreme Court Condon v. People 24554

Decided October 26, 1971.

   Mr. Chance, a landlord, went to his rental property and decided to water the lawn.  He went into the backyard to turn on the water, and noticed the smell of a dead body coming from a basement window.  He called the police.

   Three separate officers also noted the smell of a decomposing body coming from the basement window.  They tried to enter the house using Mr. Chance's key, but it didn't work.  They eventually broke into the house through the back door and searched for the dead body (they began their search on the top floor, then moved down to the main floor, including cupboards and cabinets and finding drugs and paraphernalia along the way.  Eventually, they made their way to the basement.  The court didn't seem to like the way the search was conducted).  No body was ever found, but there were chemicals found which produced a similar smell and were used in the manufacture of mescaline.  For some reason, now that all of this had been found, the police applied for a search warrant to search for the stuff they'd already found.  A day late and a dollar short.

   Mr. Chance's tenants were arrested a few days later.

   The defendants moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was illegal.  The people argued that the search was justified either as an administrative search in response to an emergency (the dead body), or alternately justified by Mr. Chance's consent.

   The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the smell of a decomposing body does not, by itself, justify warrantless entry.  If the body is decomposing, then any emergency has obviously passed.  It's too late to render aid, and they won't be any more dead in an hour or two.  The court noted that there is some health risk to the community, but this isn't the kind of pressing emergency that justifies warrantless entry.  The court noted that there was certainly probable cause in this case, but that there was plenty of time for the officers to go get a warrant to search for a dead body.

   The People's consent argument wasn't going anywhere, either.  The court pointed out that it was the defendants' Constitutional rights at stake, not Mr. Chance's, and therefore any waiver of those Constitutional rights had to come from the defendants and not Mr. Chance.  A landlord may not consent to a warrantless search of his tenant's residence.

   Finally, obtaining a warrant after the fact did nothing whatsoever to mitigate the fact that the whole search had been illegal.  The evidence obtained from this search was suppressed.


Wednesday, January 8, 1997

US Supreme Court Whiteley v. Warden 136


   This case establishes what has become known as the fellow officer rule (that an officer may rely on probable cause developed by a different officer when making an arrest).

   It's an interesting case because, although it was good for law enforcement in general, it was decided against law enforcement in this particular case.  Basically, some sheriff in Wyoming issued a bulletin stating that there was a warrant for Whiteley's arrest (and there was, although the complaint that the warrant was based on didn't actually contain enough information to establish PC).  An officer in Laramie arrested Whitelely , acting on the aforementioned BOLO.  

   The Supreme Court held that although the officers who actually arrested Whiteley were entitled to rely on information form other officers that he was subject to arrest, the arrest itself was still invalid because the sheriff who claimed to have PC didn't.