Wednesday, May 6, 1998

US Supreme Court Tennessee v. Garner 471

Decided March 27, 1985

   Police responded to a call of a burglary in progress, and found the suspect (Garner) fleeing from the house.  The officer attempting to stop Garner could see that he was 17 or 18, and appeared to be unarmed.  He identified himself as an officer and ordered Garner to stop.  Garner instead continued to flee, and began climbing over a fence.  In order to prevent him from escaping, the officer shot him in the back of the head.  He died, and was found to have stolen $10 and a purse during the burglary.

   The officer was acting under the authority of a state statute which authorized the use of any necessary force to effect an arrest (although most police departments of the time had policies that would have prohibited this use of force, this particular department did not).  The state argued in this case that the reasonableness of a seizure depends only on the facts justifying it, and not on how the seizure is actually carried out.  The court held that "to determine the constitutionality of a seizure we must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion."

   The court also explored the justifications for the old common law rule that allowed deadly force to be used to apprehend a fleeing felon, but that rule came from a time when most felonies were punishable by death, and when the use of deadly force generally involved  closer combat and therefore was justified in part by the risk to the officer.  None of those justifications were found to be appropriate for the modern world, where many felonies are less violent and dangerous than some misdemeanors.

   The court ruled that "whenever an officer restrains the freedom of a person to walk away, he has seized that person.  While it is not always clear just when minimal police interference becomes a seizure, there can be no question that apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment," and that "where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given."

   Obviously, under the facts of this case, the use of deadly force was unreasonable.

Sunday, May 3, 1998

US Supreme Court Oregon v. Elstad 83-773

Decided March 4, 1985.

   Police obtained a warrant for Elstad's arrest after a witness reported seeing him burglarize someone's home (Elstad was 18).  The police went to his house, where his mother showed them to his room.  One officer then stayed with Elstad while another went with his mother to another room to inform her of the warrant for his arrest.  The officer who stayed with Elstad informed him that he believed he had been there for the burglary, and Elstad admitted that he had been.

   Elstad was arrested and taken to the station, where he waived his Miranda rights and confessed.  At trial, he sought to suppress his confession.  He argued that his confession was the fruit of the poisonous tree, being tainted by his earlier unwarned statement that he had been there.  The court had none of it, he was convicted, and he appealed.  The court of appeals took Elstad's side and reversed his conviction.  The prosecution appealed.

   The US Supreme Court ordered Elstad's conviction reinstated.  Here's why: Miranda warnings (like the exclusionary rule) are not actually required by the Constitution.  They are a judicially created measure designed to protect a constitutional right.  Where a Miranda violation has occurred, a suspect's statements will be presumed to be involuntary and suppressed, but if the statements were not actually made as the result of coercive police conduct the 5th Amendment isn't actually being violated so the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine doesn't apply.  In this case, the prosecution had already conceded that Elstad was in custody at the time of his first incriminating statement (I don't think they should've conceded that.  If they had argued the point, then I think they would have won this case on those grounds), so the Court accepted that conclusion.  But even without Miranda warnings, the Court held that the statement was obviously voluntary.  It was made in Elbert's home (hardly a police dominated atmosphere), there was no show of force or other coercive police conduct, it was made in response to an off-hand comment rather than after extensive interrogation.  Obviously voluntary.  Since the prosecution conceded the issue of custody, and since there was no Miranda warning given, the statement was inadmissible in court, but since the statement was not coerced there was no actual violation of Elstad's rights.

   If Elstad's rights had been violated, then the second confession could have been admissible anyway if there was a sufficient break in the causal chain between his earlier statement and his later one.  But since his rights weren't violated, no break in the causal chain was necessary.  All that was necessary was that his second statement also be voluntary (and, of course, made after a Miranda waiver).  Since that requirement was met, the statement should not have been suppressed.