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. "