Tuesday, August 7, 2007

US Supreme Court US v. Karam 06-8056

Decision here.

   Karam was stopped by a Wyoming trooper for following too closely.  During the traffic stop, the trooper told Karam he was going to give him a warning.  The trooper also talked to Karam about his travel plans and whatnot while he was running his license through the computer (apparently Wyoming is one of those places where the drivers in traffic stops sit in the patrol with the cop.  Crazy bastards).  Karam said something early on about needing to use the bathroom, and the trooper pointed out that there was a truck stop which Karam had just passed.  Karam said something which the trooper believed (possibly mistakenly) to mean that he had stopped there to buy tea, which the trooper knew to be false.  Karam gave vague, inconsistent responses about where he was going and where he had stayed, and claimed to have flown from Akron to LA and decided to rent a car to drive back to Arkon.  Karam's car apparently contained some cardboard boxes which the trooper thought were suspicious because he was aware of another case where marijuana had been packaged in similar boxes.  Other than that, it contained less luggage than the trooper would have expected for the trip.  Karam was given a warning for the traffic violation, released, and then asked for consent to search his car.  He refused.

   Then the trooper told him he was not free to leave, and detained him while they waited for a K9 to arrive and sniff the car.  The dog alerted, the car was searched, the drugs were found, Karam was arrested and eventually convicted.  He appealed, and the US Supreme Court affirmed his conviction.

   The court explained that investigative detentions must be justified at their inception, and reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justify the stop.  Traffic stops are similar to investigative detentions, so the same applies to them (they can last long enough to check records, fill out tickets/warnings, etc).  During the stop, an officer is allowed to ask questions both related and unrelated to the reason for the stop, so long as unrelated matters don't prolong the stop.  Once the business of the stop has been handled, an officer may continue the stop only if the officer develops additional reasonable suspicion for continuing the stop or if the stop becomes consensual (I've always thought downgrading from a compulsory stop to a consensual one is a stretch, but so far no one has screwed that up badly enough for the courts to drop the hammer).

   In this particular case, the court discounted some of the factors that the state courts had relied on for determining that there was PC.  Even though reasonable suspicion can be based on factors which have innocent explanations, the court is only willing to give us just so much leeway with that.  The court held that there was nothing suspicious about a stack of cardboard boxes in a car,  The court also held that even though LA apparently exports drugs and Akron apparently imports them, there is nothing suspicious about driving from one metropolitan area to another (even if you flew the other way a week and a half ago).

   The court noted that Karam may not have actually claimed to have stopped at the truck stop, but that the trooper understood him to have claimed that.  Reasonable suspicion must be based on facts known to the officer at the inception of the stop, but it can also be based on facts which an officer mistakenly believes to be true so long as the mistake of fact is reasonable.  So even if Karam didn't actually say that he stopped, if the trooper thought he heard that then this perceived lie can be considered in determining whether or not there was reasonable suspicion.

   Other than that, there was the inconsistent responses about travel arrangements.  The court held that although none of the facts relied on in this case would alone constitute reasonable suspicion, reasonable suspicion is not a "divide-and-conquer" analysis; the situation has to be taken as a whole.  The various facts of the case viewed together were sufficient to justify detaining Karam until the drug dog showed up.

Monday, June 18, 2007

US Supreme Court Brendlin v. California 06-8120

Decision here.

   Police in California stopped a car to see if the registration was current, without first developing reasonable suspicion to stop the car.  Brendlin was a passenger in the car.  The officer effecting the stop recognized him, learned that he was wanted for a parole violation, and arrested him.  This led to a search of the car, which led to the discovery of meth paraphernalia, and Brendlin was charged with manufacturing.  Brendlin moved to suppress the evidence, saying that the initial stop was invalid.  This one went back and forth on each appeal.  The government conceded that there wasn't a reason to stop the car, but argued that Brendlin was not seized at the time of the illegal traffic stop, but only when he was actually placed under arrest, and therefore did not have standing to challenge the stop.

   The Supreme Court held that the passengers of a car are seized during traffic stops, and therefore they may challenge the validity of the stop.

Monday, February 26, 2007

US Supreme Court Scott v. Harris 05-1631

Decision here.

   Harris was clocked at seventy-something in a 55 MPH zone, and the cop who caught him tried to make a traffic stop.  Instead of pulling over, Harris sped away.  And so a massive pursuit with lots of cops began.  Apparently, Harris' driving (as recorded on dashcam) was pretty reckless.  About 6 minutes into the pursuit, Scott (a cop) rammed Harris' car in an attempt to end the pursuit.  Harris lost control, crashed, and wound up a quadriplegic.  He sued Scott for excessive force, and Scott moved to dismiss the case under qualified immunity.  The district court (and later the appellate court) found that there were sufficient factual disputes to require that the case be decided by a jury, and this case made its way to the Supreme Court.

   Harris' argument went like this: he was a very safe driver whilst fleeing from the police, and didn't endanger anyone, and so the requirements for the use of deadly force established in Tennessee v. Garner were not met.  Scott's action of ramming the car posed a substantial risk of killing or seriously injuring him (as evidenced by Harris' paralysis), and therefore it was deadly force.  Therefore, it was unreasonable.

   The Supreme Court made a few interesting points in this decision.  It held that Garner didn't actually create rigid rules about the circumstances under which deadly force would be permitted, it merely applied the reasonableness standard to a particular kind of force in a particular situation.  That's interesting because it means that for constitutional purposes, it's not really important to figure out whether or not Scott's actions constituted deadly force; it's only important to figure out whether or not they were reasonable.  More on that in a moment.  The court also ruled that although legitimate disputes of fact would have had to be decided by a jury, in this case there was no legitimate factual dispute because the dashcam footage made it obvious that Harris' version of events was bullshit (I think the court said fiction, but I'm pretty sure they meant bullshit).  The Supreme Court held that no jury could have reasonably believed Harris over the videotape, so the lower courts should have made the qualified immunity decision based on the facts as shown by the camera.

   And here we get to the reasonableness decision.  The court observed that Harris' flight from the police put the lives of the police and of innocent bystanders at risk, but that ramming Harris' car put Harris at even greater risk.  Still, considering that the whole situation was Harris' fault to begin with, the court found that to be reasonable.  The court specifically declined to create a rule requiring officers to break off a pursuit, since doing so doesn't guarantee that the suspect will stop driving recklessly, and since the court didn't want to create an incentive for suspects to run from the cops.  Since Scott's actions were reasonable, he didn't violate Harris' constitutional rights and he was granted qualified immunity.

   I remember when I first heard about this case, I thought that it was basically making a rule that if someone is fleeing from the cops then the liability for whatever happens falls on their shoulders.  But I was wrong; it's not that simple.  This decision doesn't prevent the police from incurring liability for their actions.  Like Garner, it just applies the reasonableness standard to a particular kind of force in a particular situation.