Monday, December 7, 2009

US Supreme Court Michigan v. Fisher 09-91

Decision here.

   Officers responded to a call of a disturbance, and were directed to a house where a man (Fisher) was "going crazy."  When they got there, they found that the house and the car in front of it were fucked up (with broken glass everywhere and a little bit of blood).  Inside the house, some of the doors were barricaded with furniture, and Fisher was throwing things around, bleeding from his hand, cussing at the cops, and telling them to get a warrant.  At some point, one officer pushed a door open and started to walk into the house, but Fisher pointed a gun at him and he retreated.

   The court's opinion doesn't say what happened next, but apparently Fisher was arrested at some point because he was eventually charged with agg assault for pointing a gun at a cop.  The trial court held that the officer's warrantless entry into Fisher's house was unreasonable, and suppressed the evidence against Fisher after that point (which means they suppressed the officer's statement that Fisher pointed a gun at him).  The trial court based their decision on the apparently non-life-threatening nature of Fisher's injuries (and the small amount of blood outside).  The prosecution appealed.

   The Supreme Court reversed, ruling that Fisher's injuries (along with the likelihood that he was assaulting someone else in the house) were sufficient to justify the officer's entry into the house based on exigent circumstances (particularly, the need to provide emergency aid to someone inside).  Nothing surprising here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

US Supreme Court Kansas v. Ventris 07-1356

Decision here.

   Ventris and Theel were involved in a home invasion robbery which ended with one or both of them killing their victim.  While Ventris was incarcerated, the police planted an informant in his cell with instructions to listen for anything incriminating.  At some point, the informant asked Ventris about something weighing on his mind, and Ventris supposedly confessed.

   At trial, the prosecution conceded that the confession was obtained in violation of the 6th Amendment, since Ventris was in effect interrogated without counsel by someone acting on behalf of the government after charges had already been filed.  Ventris eventually took the stand and blamed the robbery and murder on Theel, and his confession was introduced as rebuttal.  Ventris was convicted of robbery (but not murder), and appealed his conviction on the grounds of the confession being improperly admitted at trial.

   The Supreme Court accepted (without deciding) the prosecution's position that the confession was illegally obtained.  The court held that there are some kinds of evidence (such as a confession obtained coercively) that can never be admitted at trial for any purpose since the introduction of this kind of evidence is a constitutional violation.  There are other kinds of evidence (such as the fruits of illegal searches, or confessions obtained by uncoercively sneaking around the defendant's right to counsel) which may not be introduced in the prosecution's case in chief, but which can be admitted as rebuttal if the defendant makes it necessary.  That's because the evidence isn't being suppressed as a constitutional violation, but in order to prevent future constitutional violations (in other words, because some types of evidence are prohibited by the consitution directly, others only by the exlusionary rule.  The exclusionary rule isn't written into the constitution, it's just something the the court's came up with on their own).  It's a fine distinction, and admittedly one that really isn't all that important to law enforcement; we should be doing things the right way, it's up to the lawyers to figure out what can be brought up in trial and when if we screw it up.

   This decision is included here for two reasons: 1- Even though it's more important to lawyers than to cops, the exclusionary rule is interesting. 2- The court didn't actually decide that intentionally planting an informant in a jail is a constitutional violation, but it also didn't' seem all that impressed with the practice, so it's probably a bad idea.  3- (I know, sue me) I read all the way through this decision before deciding whether or not to post it, and I'd hate to think that all that time was wasted. :)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

US Supreme Court Arizona v. Gant 07-542

   This case has been discussed a lot in law enforcement circles, so most officers should be familiar with it.

   In this case, officers were investigating a drug complaint at a house.  They met with Gant briefly at the house and then left, then learned that there was a warrant for his arrest.  When they returned, Gant wasn't there but they made a couple other arrests.  Gant returned later, parked in the driveway, and was arrested after he got out of his car.  The arresting officers waited for additional officers to respond (since their cars each had a prisoner already), then secured him in the back of another responding car, then searched his car.  They found a gun and drugs.

   The trial court held that there was no PC for the search of Gant's car, but that the search was valid as a search incident to arrest because Gant had occupied the car shortly before being arrested.  The Arizona Supreme Court reversed, holding that the search was unreasonable.

   The US Supreme Court affirmed.  Previous decisions have justified searches incident to arrest based on the government's interest in preserving evidence and protecting officers.  Accordingly, the court held that "Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies. "

Monday, January 26, 2009

US Supreme Court Arizona v. Johnson 07-1122

Decision here.

   In this case, Johnson was the passenger in a car stopped for a non-criminal traffic infraction.  Three officers participated in the traffic stop, and the one who was speaking to Johnson chose to instruct him to get out of the car in order to question him about his gang involvement (based on his manner of dress, his association with a place that was home to a crips gang, and his admission to a recent prison sentence).  For the same reasons, the officer searched him for weapons, and found a gun.

   Johnson was convicted, appealed, and eventually the case worked its way to the Supreme Court.  The Court held that Johnson had been lawfully detained as a passenger in a traffic stop, and that the officer had reason to believe that he was armed and dangerous, and that because of this the officer didn't need to develop additional suspicion that Johnson was involved in criminal activity in order to conduct her search.  His conviction was upheld.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

US Supreme Court Pearson v. Callahan 07-751

Decision here. 

   This case lays out the rules for how qualified immunity works (overturning Saucier v. Katz in the process.  Saucier v. Katz was a much less informative read, anyway).  We'll get to that in a minute.

   Here's the facts: In 2002, officers with the Central Utah Narcotics Task Force set up a buy with a confidential informant.  The CI arranged to buy meth from Callahan in his (Callahan's) house.  He was searched beforehand, wearing a wire, and had a marked $100 bill with which to purchase said meth.  After buying the meth, he gave the arrest signal and officers made entry into the trailer where they arrested Callahan, recovered the bill, and seized a lot of meth.  There were a couple of different legal theories they used to justify their entry, but neither of them were any good.

   First, they relied on exigent circumstances.  Callahan was initially convicted at trial under this theory, and appealed his conviction.  On appeal, the prosecution admitted that there really hadn't been anything exigent about this case, and Callahan's conviction was reversed.  Then Callahan sued the officers for violating his Fourth Amendment rights.

   In defending their entry, the police relied on a contrivance of consent-once-removed.  The idea was that Callahan had consented to the CI's entry into the trailer, and now the CI was consenting to the police entry into the trailer.  I would have taken issue with this because the CI's presence in the trailer doesn't automatically confer upon him standing to consent to additional entries (side note: this decision mentions that the courts had allowed undercover officers to gain entry with consent, develop PC for an arrest, and then call for backup.  Apparently, the courts were more reluctant to give the same power to CIs, and rightly so).  The courts took issue with the use of consent-once-removed because in the interim between the events of this case and the  § 1983 suit, the Supreme Court had decided Georgia v. Randolph, which pretty much laid consent-once-removed to rest.  So the trial court ruled that consent-once-removed searches could no longer be considered reasonable, but that since the law hadn't been clearly established in 2002 so the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.  Callahan appealed.

   The Tenth Circuit held that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.  That court held there are only two justifications for a warrantless entry: consent, and exigent circumstances.  Given that there was no exigency, and that the court wasn't willing to humor this consent-once-removed thing, qualified immunity was denied.  Now, the officers appealed to the Supreme Court.

   Qualified Immunity is a legal doctrine that protects law enforcement from getting sued for acts within the scope of their duties.  It's not just a shield from personal liability, it's a way to get cases dismissed entirely before going to trial and resolving factual disputes.  In order for someone to successfully overcome qualified immunity, they have to show two things:
 1- The evidence (viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff) has to show that the officers violated a constitutional right.
 2- The right in question must have been clearly established at the time of the incident (in other words, existing case law has to have been sufficient to put the officers on notice that their actions were illegal).

   So the way it works is that if a cop gets sued, then the cop can claim qualified immunity.  The trial court then decides if the above criteria are met.  If both #1 and #2 above are true, then the officer is not entitled to qualified immunity and the case goes to trial (where either side could still win).  If either of the above conditions are false, then the officer is entitled to qualified immunity and the case is dismissed without ever getting to a trial.

   The rest of this post is going to get a little academic, but if everything above makes sense then you've got the most important parts down.

   Under Saucier v. Katz, the trial court was required to address those two points in the order that I listed them.  Every time an officer claimed qualified immunity, the court would have to first decide if a constitutional right had been violated.  If one had been, then the court would decide if that right was clearly established.  This case overturned Saucier.  The same two criteria still had to be met, but now the courts were free to address the two criteria in whichever order they wanted; and if either of the points was enough to preserve qualified immunity, then the court didn't have to consider the other.  Admittedly, that doesn't have too much impact on how the police do our jobs, but it's a huge deal for the courts.  It allows them to resolve cases without unnecessarily making significant case law.

   The courts usually like to resolve whatever case is in front of them by making the smallest decision that will do.  That way, the most fundamental questions of law are left more or less undisturbed except in cases that really turn on on important issues.  Under Saucier, any time anyone sued a cop the courts were forced to create constitutional case law no matter how stupid and pointless the actual lawsuit was, even in cases where a higher court was already exploring the same issue using a case better suited to determining what the precedent should be.  With Saucier overturned, the court could resolve stupid cases just by taking judicial notice that the right alleged to have been violated wasn't clearly established, and leave it at that.  Important issues could be left for cases that deserved more attention.

   Back to the case at hand... the Supreme Court applied its own reasoning to this case and addressed the above qualified immunity questions in the newly-authorized reverse order (maybe I've been reading too many of these decisions, but I thought that was pretty funny).  The court held that at the time of the incident, the invalidity of the consent-once-removed doctrine hadn't been clearly established by existing case law, so the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.  Since that was sufficient to resolve the lawsuit, the court declined to address whether or not any constitutional right was actually violated (although, as mentioned above, that question was probably sufficiently addressed in Georgia v. Randolph).

   tl;dr: the cops won, and the court found a new way of explaining why.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

US Supreme Court Herring v. US 07-513

Decision here.

   Herring went to the impound lot to pick up his car.  He apparently had had a number of run-ins with the police before, when a deputy saw him he contacted the county clerk to find out if there were any local warrants for his arrest.  There weren't, so he had the clerk contact a neighboring county to see if there were any warrants for Herring's arrest there.  The clerks of the neighboring county checked their records and found that there was a warrant.  The deputy pulled Herring over and arrested him, in the process finding meth and a gun (Herring was a convicted felon).

   The deputies requested a hard copy of the warrant be faxed to their station, but the clerks couldn't find a hard copy so they called the court.  It turned out that the warrant had been canceled five months ago, the court had informed law enforcement of this fact, and someone had forgotten to take it out of the law enforcement database.  The error took about ten minutes to discover, but by then it was too late; the meth and gun had already been found.  The court found that the arresting officers were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing or negligence, but assumed that whoever had dropped the ball was also a law enforcement official and had acted negligently. Even so, the court admitted the evidence because the clerical error was merely negligent and not deliberate, it was attenuated from the arrest, and the preventative benefit (if any) of suppressing the evidence was outweighed by the cost.  Herring appealed.

   The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and ruled that the evidence was properly admitted.  The court noted that exclusion would have been justified if the police had been reckless in their maintenance of the warrant database or if they had intentionally made false entries to justify future arrests, but that wasn't the case here.  It was just an isolated error, and suppressing evidence wouldn't make it any less likely to recur, so there was no reason to apply the exclusionary rule.