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.