Monday, December 10, 2001

US Supreme Court US v. Knights 00-1260

Decision here.

   Knights was on probation for a drug offense when the facts of this case occurred.  One of the conditions of his probation was that he would "[s]ubmit his . . . person, property, place of residence, vehicle, personal effects, to search at anytime, with or without a search warrant, warrant of arrest or reasonable cause by any probation officer or law enforcement officer."  He was notified of this condition in writing, on a form that he signed.

   Whilst on probation, Knights was a suspect in an arson investigation (he was mad at the power company, which had caught him stealing electricity.  There was a series of 30 vandalisms to their facilities which coincided with his court dates, and the latest involved a fire that cause $1.5 million in damage).  A detective noticed the correlation, and set up surveillance at Knights' house.  He saw Knights' co-conspirator disposing of pipe bombs, and saw other explosives in the back of Knights' truck.  When Knights was gone, he searched the apartment and found more explosives, and a padlock with the power company's name stamped on it.  Because the detective was aware of the search provision in Knights' probation, he didn't bother getting a warrant.

   The evidence was initially suppressed because the search was done for investigative rather than probationary purposes.  The Supreme Court held that being a probationer subject to a search provision significantly diminished Knights' privacy interests.  The ruling states that "when an officer has reasonable suspicion that a probationer subject to a search condition is engaged in criminal activity, there is enough likelihood that criminal conduct is occurring that an intrusion on the probationer's significantly diminished privacy interests is reasonable." (emphasis added)

   Since there was clearly RS in this case, the search was valid and the evidence admitted.  The court declined to base its decision on the detective's motivation for the search, since an officer's subjective intent is irrelevant  to fourth amendment analysis.


Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Colorado Supreme Court People v. Haley 01SA148, 01SA149, 01SA150

Decided 11-27-01.

   Officer Miller was working drug interdiction on I-70.  He saw a car following a truck too closely, and made a traffic stop.  The car had three occupants, Haley was the driver.  During the stop, Officer Miller separated Haley from the passengers, noted that they were all acting nervous (shaking hands, licking lips, etc), and that Haley said they had rented the car to drive home (Kansas City) after flying to California for a week but the passengers didn't seem to know what their destination was.  He decided not to issue a traffic ticket, and told Haley that he was free to go.  Immediately after telling him he was free to go, he asked for consent to search the car for drugs with a K9.  Haley gave consent to search the luggage, but not the car.

   Haley removed the luggage from the car, and put it a few feet away.  Miller ran his dog on the luggage, and the dog didn't alert.  Miller ran his dog on the car (Haley protested this and shouted at Miller).  The dog alerted on the car, but then moved to protect Miller from Haley.  Miller put the dog back in the patrol car, then detained everyone for another ten minutes until other officers arrived.  When two more officers arrived, they searched everybody.  Haley and one of the other occupants resisted, there was a foot chase and a failed attempt to ditch the drugs, and eventually all three occupants of Haley's car were arrested and charged with a variety of offenses.  The trial court suppressed the evidence against them, and the prosecution appealed.

   The Colorado Supreme Court held that there was no reasonable suspicion to justify the k9 sniff or to justify prolonging the traffic stop.  Also, Haley's refusal to consent to a search of the car could not be used to support reasonable suspicion.  The prosecution argued that a dog sniff of luggage and a vehicle in a public place did not constitute a search, but the court ruled that Haley, his luggage, and his car were only in a public place because they were being unlawfully detained by Ofc. Miller.  Accordingly, the drugs were suppressed as the fruit of the poisonous tree.

Monday, June 11, 2001

US Supreme Court Kyllo v. US 99-8608

Decided June 11, 2001

   A federal agent suspected that Kyllo was growing marijuana in his home, which requires high intensity lamps.  As part of his investigation, he used a thermal imaging device to see if Kyllo's condo was warmer than his neighbors' was.  The scan took place from across the street, and from another street behind Kyllo's home, using a device that picks up infrared radiation.  The device found that a section of his roof was warmer than the rest of his home and a lot warmer than the other homes in the complex.  From this, the agent discerned (correctly) the type of lamp which Kyllo was using.

   Based on this information, and on the use of informants and information from utility bills, the agents got a warrant for Kyllo's condo.  They found an indoor grow with more than 100 plants, and Kyllo went to jail.  He moved to suppress the marijuana, arguing that the warrant was obtained using information from an illegal search.  The trial court denied his motion, so he conditionally pled guilty and appealed.

   The US Supreme Court observed that searches within a home are presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, but surveillance from outside the home does not ordinarily qualify as a search.  By simply looking at a house, the police are not infringing on any reasonable expectation of privacy.  The important question in this case is whether or not the use of sense enhancing equipment (like a thermal imager) converts ordinary surveillance to a search.

   The Court ruled that a search has occurred when the police use a sense enhancing device which is not in general public use, and which reveals information which could not otherwise be discerned from outside the area being searched.  So using a thermal imaging device is a search, since the police couldn't tell what temperature the inside of the house is unless they went into the house or used the device.  Since there was no warrant and no justification for a warrantless search, this search in this case was unreasonable and the infrared evidence had to be suppressed.  The case was remanded back to the trial court for a hearing on whether or not the other information used to apply for a warrant would have been sufficient to obtain one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2001

US Supreme Court Atwater v. Lago Vista 99-1408

Decision here.

   Atwater was stopped for driving without a seatbelt.  In Texas (where this took place), this offense carried a possible fine of $25-$50, and no possible jail time.  She didn't have her driver's license with her (although her identity was apparently known to the officer who stopped her.  Sounds like Lago Vista is a small town).  She was arrested for driving without a seatbelt, booked into the jail, and held for an hour before she saw a judge who released her on a $310 bond.  She eventually pled guilty to driving without a seatbelt and paid the $50 fine.  Then she sued the city.

   She sued under §1983 for violation of her 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.  She argued that her arrest was unreasonable because common law at the time of the framing of the Constitution prohibited warrantless arrests for misdemeanors that were not a breach of the peace, and also because the offense she was charged with was not punishable by imprisonment and there was nothing about the circumstances of her case that made a custodial arrest necessary.

   The US Supreme Court makes it clear in their decision that the Justices were convinced this was a contempt of cop arrest.  They describe it as a pointless indignity and say that the officer was at best using extremely poor judgment.  But they side with the city anyway (just barely, this was a 5-4 decision).

   First, the court examines the historical record to try to clarify what the Framers of the Constitution would have meant by "reasonable."  It can be really interesting when the court does that, if you've got some extra time on your hands.  I'll spare you the long list of examples and tell you that the court decides that 1- the Framers weren't necessarily opposed to warrantless arrests for non-violent misdemeanors, and 2- the historical evolution of law hasn't moved in that direction, either.

   Second, the court examines the new rule that Atwater is proposing: that custodial arrests should be made only when an offense is punishable by jail time or when there is some other compelling reason to make a custodial arrest.  The court decides that this new rule would be unworkable for a variety of reasons.  It's not always readily apparent in the field whether an offense is punishable by jail time or not (such as when the actual weight of drugs seized is close to the line between a minor offense or a more serious one, when the officer doesn't know whether an offense is a first offense or a subsequent offense, or when a sentencing scheme is too complicated to be readily analyzed at the time that an officer is deciding whether or not to make a custodial arrest).  Also, turning the exercise of police discretion into a Constitutional question would invite excessive litigation, and would have a chilling effect on enforcement efforts that would outweigh the infrequent benefit of preventing unnecessary (but otherwise lawful) arrests.

   Finding Atwater's arguments lacking and her solution unmanageable, the court ruled that "if an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender."  That said, the court noted that the legislature is free to impose statutory restrictions on arrests for minor offenses (by passing a law requiring that a defendant be released on a summons for certain offenses or in certain circumstances).