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   Officer Jenks stopped Robinson for driving on a revoked license (he knew his license was revoked froman investigation a few days earlier), and placed him under arrest.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.