Friday, April 10, 1998

Colorado Supreme Court People v. Berow 83SA498 83SA506

Decided October 9, 1984.

   Berow and her husband lived in a hotel, and went on a vacation to California.  Before leaving, they asked the manager to watch their room and "arrest any intruders."  While they were gone, the manager found the door had been tampered with and thought he saw someone inside.  He called the cops.  Even though the door had been tampered with, it was apparently still secured from inside by a chain lock.  Believing that a burglary was in progress, the officer forced entry.

   No one was found inside, but while searching only in areas where a person could hide the officer found a hash pipe and some marijuana plants.  He left the apartment, got a search warrant, returned and seized the evidence.  The trial court suppressed the evidence and the people appealed.

   The Colorado Supreme Court held that the apparent in-progress burglary constituted exigent circumstances justifying the officer's entry, and that additionally the hotel manager had apparently been given authority to consent to the officer's entry.  Once inside, the officer found the items in plain view and did not deviate from the original purpose of the search until he had obtained a warrant.  The order suppressing the evidence was reversed.

Tuesday, April 7, 1998

US Supreme Court US v. Leon 82-1771

Decided July 5, 1984

   An untested confidential informant made some allegations against some people, the cops investigated at great length, and eventually applied for a search warrant for three houses.  The warrant application was reviewed by several deputy district attorneys before making its way to the magistrate, who found that there was probable cause.  The warrant was issued, and evidence obtained from the searches led to several arrests (including Leon's) for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.

   The defendants moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the warrant was not supported by probable cause.  The trial court held that this was a close case, and that the investigating officer had acted in good faith in his investigation, but that the affidavit did not contain sufficient information and the warrant should not have been issued.  Accordingly, the evidence was suppressed.  The people appealed.

   The case gets more interesting when the court discusses the exclusionary rule.  Essentially, the exclusionary says that if evidence is obtained as the result of unlawful police conduct, then that evidence may not be introduced in the prosecution's case in chief (the evidence can still be used for other purposes, such as for cross-examining the defendant and for testimony in front of a grand jury).  And there's nothing in the Constitution which guarantees the suppression of unlawfully obtained evidence; the fourth amendment establishes the people's right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, but it doesn't say anything about what should happen with evidence that is obtained when that right is violated.  The exclusionary rule was a sanction created by the courts to ensure that law enforcement would not systemically violate people's rights.

   That's a key point: the exclusionary rule doesn't exist to vindicate someone's rights (that's what lawsuits are for).  The exclusionary rule exists to discourage police misconduct, and so it should only be applied in circumstances where it will actually accomplish that goal.  In a case like this one, the police had already done everything they could to comply with the law.  They sought the guidance of a neutral magistrate by applying for a search warrant, and they were entitled to rely on the magistrate's judgment.  When the police are acting in good faith reliance on a search warrant they believe to be valid, but that warrant is later found to be invalid for some reason, the evidence is still admissible.  And so the good faith exception was born.

   Of course, this exception won't save a warrant that obtained by presenting faulty information to a judge when the officers knew or should have known that the information was false.  It also won't help if the warrant is obviously invalid (such as warrants that don't particularly describe the place to be searched or the item to be seized), warrants that are based on affidavits obviously devoid of probable cause, or "rubber stamped " warrants (meaning warrants issued by a judges who will grant anything just because the cops asked for it).

Monday, April 6, 1998

US Supreme Court New York v. Quarles 82-1213

Decided June 12, 1984

   This decision created the well-known public safety exception to Miranda.

   A couple of cops were approached by a woman who claimed that she had just been raped by a man with a gun.  She described the suspect, and said that he had gone to a particular supermarket.  The cops went to that store, where the found Quarles (who matched the suspect description).

   As soon as he saw the cops, Quarles took off running.  They chased, lost sight of him briefly, but caught him a moment later.  He was held at gunpoint, handcuffed, and searched, and there were at least four cops present.  He was in possession of an empty shoulder holster.

   One of the cops asked Quarles "Where's the gun?"  Quarles nodded to some boxes and told him the gun was over there.  After recovering the gun, the officer read Quarles the Miranda warnings.  Quarles waived his rights, and made some additional incriminating statements.

   The trial court suppressed the gun and Quarles' statements, reasoning that all of that evidence was tainted by the officer's failure to read Miranda before asking Quarles where the gun was.  The prosecution appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court.

   The Court explained that the Miranda warnings aren't actually constitutional rights themselves, but court-created procedural safeguards which protect the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.  At the time that the court had created this safeguard, it accepted that requiring officers to Mirandize suspects would result in fewer convictions.  But this situation is different: the gun which was discarded somewhere in the store posed a safety risk.  The court held that unlike the risk of a later acquittal, a present risk of physical harm is more important than the procedural safeguard of Miranda warnings.  The court also noted that Quarles' incriminating statements weren't obtained by the sort of coercion that Miranda was intented to prevent.  So the court created a narrow exception to Miranda, allowing unwarned statements in circumstances like these to be used as evidence by the prosecution (as long as those statements are the result of the sort of questioning which is necessary to address a safety risk).

Saturday, April 4, 1998

US Supreme Court US v. Jacobsen 82-1167

Decided April 2, 1984.

   FedEx employees accidentally damaged a package with a forklift, and so they examined the contents of the package (apparently there's a policy that they do that with damaged goods for insurance reasons).  They found that the package contained nothing except baggies of white powder, so the called the police.  A federal agent arrived (by then the FedEx employees had put the cocaine back in the package, but didn't seal it), reopened the package, and extracted a small sample from the baggies with a knife.  It tested positive for cocaine, and the feds got a warrant for the house that the cocaine was being shipped to.  Jacobsen et al were arrested at that house, charged with and convicted of possession with intent to distribute.  They appealed their conviction, arguing that the warrant was obtained as the result of an illegal search and seizure.

   The US Supreme Court explained that the Fourth Amendment restricts two different categories of government actions: searches (where the government infringes an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable) and seizures (where the government interferes with a person's possessory interest in the item being seized).  The Fourth Amendment only protects against government actions.  If a private person conducts a search that would be unreasonable for a police officer, that search does not violate the Fourth Amendment.  So the initial search by the FedEx employees doesn't require the suppression of any evidence.

   The rule for subsequent warrantless searches by law enforcement are that they can not expend the scope of the original private search.  Jacobsen's expectation of privacy in the package was compromised by the actions of the FedEx employees (the same as it would have been if he had given the package to a third person who had chosen of his own accord to open it for the police).  Once an expectation of privacy is compromised by a private person, the police are not required to ignore information obtained from that source.  And reexamining the cocaine wasn't likely to reveal any information other than what the feds already knew from the FedEx employees.  So even though the cocaine was repackaged when the feds got there, the agents were within their authority when they took it out of the package to examine it. 

   Holding on to the package instead of allowing it to continue on to its destination was a seizure, but it was held to be a reasonable one because the package obviously contained contraband.  Field testing the cocaine (which involved removing a trace amount with the knife and destroying it) was a more serious seizure, because it was permanent.  This was still held to be reasonable, because the courts balanced the government's interests in enforcing drug laws against the defendant's possessory interest in the cocaine.  Since people do not have a legitimate possessory interest in contraband, since the outcome of the test was virtually certain before the test was conducted, and since the amount removed for the test was so slight, the government's interests were held to outweight Jacobsen's interests in this case, and the seizure was held reasonable.

   Jacobsen et al's convictions were upheld.