Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tenth Circuit US v. Strandlof

   This decision upholds the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to falsely claim to have received military honors.  The facts of the case are pretty much what you would expect them to be.

   The Tenth Circuit held that under current SCOTUS case law, the First Amendment does not protect knowingly false statements of fact where either the statute is specific enough to not have a chilling effect on other categories of speech which are protected (for example, a law against making false statements about a public official could have a chilling effect on political discourse unless the elements of the crime included malice), or where the law in question reaches no farther than is necessary to protect a compelling government interest.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

US Supreme Court Ryburn v. Huff 11-208

Decision here.

   Officers received a call that Vincent Huff had threatened to shoot up his school.  They interviewed school staff and other students, and learned that Huff had been bullied and was frequently absent (and therefore, based on their training, he met the profile of a school shooter).  Huff was not at school, so they went to his house to meet with him.

   There was no answer when they knocked on the door, so they tried to call into the house by phone.  They eventually got ahold of Huff's mother by cell phone.  She told them that she was inside the house with her son, and they told her they wanted to speak with him.  She hung up.  Eventually, she met with officers in front of the house and brought her son with her.  She never asked why the officers were there, and refused to allow the officers into the house, which the officers noted as strange.  One of the police asked if there were weapons in the house.

   Testimony conficts as to what happened next.  Mrs. Huff claims that she said she was going inside to get her husband, the officers claim that she suddenly turned and ran into the house.  Four officers followed her into the house (including two who had been standing outside of earshot for this exchange and believed that she had given consent for entry).  They all remained in the front room with Vincent and Mrs. Huff, until Vincent's father entered and "challenged the officers' authority to be there."  The officers remained in the house for five or ten minutes to conduct their investigation, then concluded that the rumors regarding Vincent's threats were unfounded, and left.

   The Huffs sued, and the district court ruled in favor of the officers, saying that they were entitled to qualified immunity.  The Huffs appealed, and the Ninth Circuit held that the last two officers to enter the house (who entered on the erroneous belief that consent had been given) were entitled to qualified immunity, but the first two to enter (for officer safety reasons) were not.  The Ninth "acknowledged that police officers are allowed to enter a home without a warrant if they reasonably believe that immediate entry is necessary to protect themselves or others from serious harm, even if the officers lack probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed," but held that in this case Mrs. Huff was simply asserting her right to end her conversation with the officers and return to her home.

   The officers who had now been denied qualified immunity appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed.  The Supreme Court held that: 
1- Based on current case law, a reasonable officer could have believed that he was justified in making warrantless entry under the circumstances of this case.  
2- Although none of Mrs. Huff's actions were illegal, there are many circumstances in which lawful conduct may portend imminent violence.
3- Even when each of the events of a case are mundane when viewed in isolation, they may paint an alarming picture when viewed together.
4- The lower court's second guessing of the officers in this case doesn't jibe with Graham v. Conner.  Judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, the officers' actions were a reasonable response to Mrs. Huff's behavior.

   And so the officers were granted qualified immunity.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

US Supreme Court US v. Jones 10-1259

Decision here. 

   I meant to write this one up last Monday, but I've been in training all week and haven't had time.

   Here's the facts: Jones was being investigated for drug trafficking, and as part of of the investigation the government (an FBI/Metro PD task force) obtained a search warrant to place a GPS on his jeep (his wife's actually, but he was the only driver). The warrant authorized the police to install the GPS on the jeep within 10 days of its issuance, and the installation had to occur within Washington, D.C. So they did what anyone would do, and installed the GPS 11 days later while the jeep was parked in Maryland. They continued their investigation using the GPS, and eventually Jones was convicted of drug trafficking. After his conviction, Jones was sentenced to life in prison.

   Prior to his trial, Jones had filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the GPS, which was substantial in that it tied him to a stash house that contained lots of money and cocaine. The district court suppressed the evidence obtained while the jeep was parked at Jones' residence, but admitted the rest because it held that Jones had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his location while moving along a public roadway. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, and a retrial ended with his conviction. Jones appealed, on the grounds that the GPS evidence should have been suppressed.

   The court of appeals held that the GPS evidence should have been suppressed. The government appealed, arguing that the GPS was not a search for Fourth Amendment purposes (because Jones didn't have a REP in his location?). At first, I thought that the government had effectively abrogated this position back in the beginning of the investigation, when they applied for a warrant (something that we don't normally do when our intended activity doesn't amount to a search). But since an officer's subjective intent doesn't matter for Fourth Amendment analysis, so long as the facts are reasonable, the government could have argued that the officers thought they were conducting a search (and therefore applied for a warrant) even though they actually weren't... I don't know if that's what they were going for, it's just the only thing I could think of to salvage such a bizarre argument. The government raised an alternate argument on appeal that even if this was a search, it was a reasonable one. Since this argument was first raised on appeal, the Court refused to consider it.

   Anyway, the opinion. Here's where it gets confusing. There are actually three opinions written for this decision. Every Justice held that the evidence should have been suppressed, but they couldn't seem to agree on why. Five justices joined in the majority opinion, and one of those also wrote her own concurring opinion. The four remaining justices joined in a concurring opinion which concurred only in the outcome. So:

   Majority (barely) opinion: For most of US history, the primary test for determining whether or not something was a search for Fourth Amendment purposes was whether or not the government's actions would have been trespass under common law (specifically, trespass against someone's person, house, papers, or effects. Even though it was possible to commit common law trespass in an open field, open fields are not mentioned in the Fourth Amendment, so the Fourth Amendment is not implicated at all when an open field is searched. A vehicle, on the other hand, is someone's "affect," so the Fourth Amendment is implicated here). In 1967, the Supreme Court in Katz v. US created the reasonable expectation of privacy test (that phrase actually appears in a concurring opinion, but subsequent search and seizure decisions have followed its reasoning). However, nothing in that decision actually abrogated the old test, but only added to it. In this case, the police installed a hidden device on Jones' car (the Court compares this to a constable stowing away in a carriage to obtain information that would incriminate the occupants, such as their destination or conversations). Under the English Common Law prevalent at the time that the Fourth Amendment was drafted, this would have been a trespass. Therefore, installing the GPS was a search. Since installing the GPS was a search, and since there was no valid warrant or exception to the requirement for one, the evidence should be supressed.

   Concurring opinion #1: One of the Justices who joined in the majority opinion wrote this. This opinion suggests that the real concern isn't the installation of the GPS device, but the detailed personal information which can be surreptitiously obtained by one. This opinion suggests that a person's expectation of privacy in her GPS location may be something that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable, because of the wealth of personal information that can be obtained. Under the reasoning of this opinion, obtaining someone's location by using GPS information signals from their own phone might be protected by the Fourth Amendment (as it should be, in my opinion). However, since the trespass test is sufficient to dispose of the case at hand, it isn't necessary to make a ruling on the other issues raised by this opinion.

   Concurring opinion #2 (in which four justices joined): This opinion suggest that the actual installation of the GPS isn't the issue, and criticizes the majority for using 18th century common law as the basis for a decision on 21st century technology. Regarding the stowaway constable metaphor, this decision says "The Court suggests that something like this might have occurred in 1791, but this would have required either a gigantic coach, a very tiny constable, or both—not to mention a constable with incredible fortitude and patience." This opinion suggests that the issue is the amount of time that the police continued to monitor Jones' location by GPS, and that sometime before reaching the four week mark this became a search for Fourth Amendment purposes. Prior to the advent of GPS technology, this kind of surveillance would have required a team of agents, multiple vehicles, and perhaps aerial assistance. The amount of resources required meant that only important investigations would include this sort of tactic. Now, this kind of surveillance can be accomplished cheaply and easily. This opinion reasons that relatively short-term surveillance is ok, but longer term surveillance conflicts with a person's reasonable expectation of privacy (depending in part on the severity of the offense). The only guidance this opinion offers to differentiate between short term and long term surveillance is that four weeks falls well within the realm of long term.

   Personally, I'd have liked to see a majority opinion that more closely resembled concurring opinion #1. It was the opinion that made the most sense to me, and that focused the most on what I see as the real issue in this case (electronically monitoring someone's location without their knowledge). But I guess that unless I eventually end up with "the honorable" in front of my name, I'll just have to roll with what the court gives me.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Reorganizing Cases

   The main purpose of this site is to help me (and whoever else is interested) stay current on relevant case law, but I also wanted it to be somewhere that I can look up older cases that I've read.  Somewhere I could go when I'm wondering "didn't I read something about that?"  So I've started adding some older cases.  The result is a little confusing when a 2005 case is posted next to a decision from last week, though.

   So I'm also editing the "published on" date for the posts about old cases.  Apparently, blogger will let you do that.*  That way, cases will show up in the archives on the right in something resembling the order that they were decided.  I'm not sure what that will do to the RSS feeds, so my apologies if you subscribe to the site feed and it turns into a confusing mess.

*Within limits.  Blogger will only let me go back just so far, so the dates on cases decided prior to 2000 won't actually match the published-on dates for the blog.  But the order should still be about right.

Colorado Supreme Court Mumford v. People 10SC295

Decision here.

   Mumford was present as his house with several other people when police executed a search warrant on the house.  The focus of the investigation was one of Mumford's friends, who was also present and was arrested on an outstanding warrant.  Drugs and paraphernalia were found in the house, one occupant of the house was told it was his lucky day and was allowed to leave, others were handcuffed and detained in front of the house.  Mumford was also detained in front of the house, but there is conflicting testimony as to whether or not he was handcuffed.  Several officers briefly had guns drawn at the beginning of the encounter, and Mumford was specifically told that he was not free to go (although he was not guarded closely while being detained in the front yard).

   An officer told the parties detained in front of the house that if they told the truth, nothing bad would happen.  A detective then asked Mumford for identifying information, and asked him if there was anything they needed to know about in the house.  The detective did not display a weapon and spoke in a conversational tone.  Mumford never objected to speaking to the detective, and he admitted to having cocaine in the house for personal use.  The detective left Mumford outside the house while he went to the bedroom and found the cocaine where Mumford had described it.  Mumford was subsequently arrested and convicted.

   Mumford appealed his conviction, arguing that his statements should be suppressed as he was never given Miranda warnings.  Mumford acknowledged that there were no grounds to suppress the cocaine, since it was found during the execution of a valid search warrant.  Although Mumford was clearly detained, the court held that his freedom of action was not limited to the degree normally associated with a formal arrest.  Reasons for this included the lack of actual physical restraints, the detective's conversational tone and relatively innocuous questioning, the fact that another occupant had already been released, and the fact that there was nothing to suggest that the police had (or were about to) discovered evidence against Mumford.

   I can't say I dislike the court's opinion, although it does surprise me.  I think that on another day with a different court, these facts may well have led to a different result.  But then I'm a lot quicker to read Miranda warnings than most cops I know.

Colorado Supreme Court People v. Strimple 11SA217


   Strimple's common law wife called the police from a gas station to report that he had spit on her, pushed her around, broken her phone, and thrown her out of their house.  She told the police that she was afraid for her children (still in the house with Strimple), and that Strimple had a gun.  She gave written consent for the police to search the house.

   Police tried to contact Strimple, and a standoff ensued.  Strimple ordered police off of his property, called them names, and made threats.  After half an hour, Strimple surrendered.  He initially denied having a gun, but then admitted that there was a gun in the sofa.  Police conducted a protective sweep of the house, locating the four children (who were unharmed) and a gun under a cushion on the sofa (I would take issue with them finding this during a protective sweep if Strimple hadn't told them where it was).  Off to jail Strimple goes.

   Afterwards, Strimple's common-law wife informed the police of additional weapons in the house that she wanted removed, and again gave consent to search.  The police found some kinves, drug paraphernalia, and a pipe bomb.  Strimple was charged with possession of the pipe bomb and a handful of DV charges.  At trial, he moved to suppress all evidence found in the home on the grounds that even though his wife had given consent to search the house (and had standing to give consent), he had refused that consent during the standoff.

   The trial court held that the protective sweep was reasonable, and admitted the handgun found during the protective sweep into evidence.  The trial court further held that Strimple's refusal during the standoff trumped his wife's consent to search the house, so the pipe bomb and paraphernalia were suppressed.  The people filed an interlocutory appeal.

   The court discusses some factually similar cases from other circuits.  In the Seventh Circuit, once the objecting party has been validly removed (for a reason other than to overcome his objection), the remaining party may again consent to a search.  In the Ninth Circuit, the objecting party's objection remains in force even after he or she has been removed, unless there is evidence that the objecting party has changed his mind.  In this decision, the Colorado Supreme Court follows the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit, and holds that Strimple's objection to the search lost its effect when he was removed from the house (and that there is no evidence that the police removed him for the purpose of overcoming his objection).  The court also discusses the danger that the weapons posed if the had remained in the house.  The suppression order was reversed and the case was returned to the trial court.

   Chief Justice Bender filed a dissenting opinion, asserting that the evidence should have been suppressed.

Tenth Circuit US v. Ruiz 10-333

Decision here,

   There really isn't anything too surprising in this case.

   Ruiz rented space in an airplane hangar to store his plane.  He was acting suspicious, so the airport employees called the police.  The police ran a dog on the outside of the plane, which detected the odor of drugs, and then they got a warrant for the plane.  They found drugs.

   Later, the police were called to a residence that Ruiz had formerly rented.  He had abandoned the property, and left a note informing his landlords that he was abandoning the property (he also asked them to hang on to his stuff until he could collect it).  The landlords had found some suspicious property left behind, and they called the police.  The police found drugs.

   Ruiz moved to suppress the drugs found in both cases, saying that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hangar and in the residence.  The court held that Ruiz did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the hangar, because it was space that he shared with other rental customers (and which he did not have 24 hour access to, although the manager who consented to the search did).  The court also held that Ruiz had abandoned the rental property, and no longer had a reasonable expectation of privacy there (his former landlords did have standing, but they also consented to the search).  And so the judgement of the lower courts was affirmed.

   This one seemed pretty obvious to me. I'm surprised that the case made it as far up as the tenth circuit.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tenth Circuit US v. Rochin 11-2024

   First off, the thing that stands out the most about this decision is the way that it's written.  Court decisions are usually very dry, this one is less so.  Enjoy.

   Facts: A cop in New Mexico stopped Rochin for driving with an expired license plate.  During the stop, the officer was informed by dispatch that this car was suspected in a drive by shooting.  Rochin was unable to provide his license, insurance, or registration.  The officer asked (instead of ordered at gunpoint) Rochin to get out of the car, and then he searched him for weapons.  See Terry v. Ohio.  Whilst searching Rochin for weapons, the officer felt some unidentifiable hard cylindrical items in his pocket.  The officer asked Rochin "¿quién es?" by which he probably meant "¿qué es?"

   Rochin answers "No sabe," and the officer removed the hard cylindrical objects from Rochin's pockets to ensure that they were not weapons.  As it turns out, they were drug paraphernalia (pipes).  Rochin was arrested, his car was searched, and he was convicted of some shit.  Rochin moved to suppress the drug paraphernalia (and therefore the arrest, and everything that followed), suggesting that the officer exceeded the scope of a Terry search when he removed the items from his pockets.  The court held that the officer could have reasonably feared that the objects were weapons, and therefore it was reasonable for him to investigate further when he was unable to identify them after first discovering them.

Tenth Circuit Koch v. Dell City 10-6105

Decision here.

   An officer in Oklahoma arrests Koch for obstruction for not answering questions (he was asking about the whereabouts of an elderly woman in Koch's care for a welfare check).  Charges are dropped, and Koch sues.  The officer is somehow granted qualified immunity.  After this case, it's probably clearly established that you can't arrest someone for refusing to answer questions, so don't do that.

Tenth Circuit US v Chavez 10-2273

Decision here.

   This decision relates in part to a motion to suppress evidence, and in part to sentencing guidelines.  I'm really not all that interested in sentencing guidelines, so I'll only be discussing half of the case here.

   The facts: Police in New Mexico were dispatched to a call of a disturbance in a Wal-Mart parking lot, with people urinating and (gasp!) littering.  Officers arrived as Chavez was driving away, and a Wal-Mart employee flagged them down and pointed out the car that Chavez was driving away in.  Chavez was detained for the investigation of the disturbance.

   During the officers' contact with Chavez, they noticed indicia of intoxication and Chavez failed the field sobriety tests (much as I would right now, so you might have to forgive a little rambling).  Rather than arrest him for DUI, they threatened to arrest him and then asked for consent to search the car and interrogated him about the ownership of the car (Chavez said it was his friend's car, but the registration listed to another name that Chavez was unable to explain).  At various points during the investigation, Chavez consented to the search, denied consent, then consented to a K9 searching the outside of his car (the dog arrived half an hour into the stop), then the inside of his car, and then refused to consent to a search of his trunk after the K9 alerted.  Eventually, Chavez was arrested for DUI and the car was impounded.  Later the police ran a K9 on the outside of the car again, which alerted on the trunk, then obtained a search warrant for the trunk where they found cocaine.

   That last part makes more sense if you know that the Carroll doctrine doesn't apply in NM, because the NM constitution affords more protection against search & seizure of automobiles than the federal constitution.

   Anyway, Chavez was charged with possession with intent to distribute, and suddenly the DUI was the least of his problems.  He filed a motion to suppress the cocaine on several grounds: 1- there was no reasonable suspicion to stop him in the first place, 2- the police had no probable cause to arrest him for DUI 3- the scope of his detention was unreasonable, and 4- his consent to search the car was involuntary (and not attenuated from the illegal stop and arrest),

   Before we get to the court's opinion, here's mine (it's my blog, after all): 1- fuck off.  The police were responding to a call of a disturbance, and the reporting party pointed to Chavez's car, identifying it as the suspect vehicle.  There was reasonable suspicions.  2- fuck off.  The police had probable cause to arrest Chavez for DUI.  Frankly, I'm not sure why they didn't just skip over making threats to arrest him and just arrest him.  I don't do that... if I've got enough to take you, I'm taking you now.  If I don't have enough to take you, I'm not taking you.  But I don't mess around with telling people repeatedly that they're "this close" to going to jail.  What's the point? 3- Chavez almost has a point.  Extending a detention for 30 minutes to get a dog is probably unreasonable, except that the police had PC to arrest at that point so they can extend the stop all day if they want to. 4- Chavez DOES have a point.  The consent to search was clearly involuntary... If I tell you that you're an inch from going to jail and then ask you for consent to search something, who could possibly miss the implied threat?  I don't know if the evidence should have been suppressed, though, since if the police were to just go ahead and make the arrest that they had PC for then they would have likely found it during an inventory of the car...

   Here's what the court says: 1- The stop was justified by reasonable suspicion.  2- The police had PC to arrest Chavez for DUI.  3- Because the police had PC to arrest, the court doesn't care about the extension of the stop.  PC isn't always required to extend a stop, but it is sufficient (although the court does note that even if there hadn't been PC, the extension of the stop would have been reasonable.  The court and I disagree on this, but when the court and I disagree, the court wins). 4- Since the stop and arrest were both reasonable the court didn't see fit to address Chavez's consent argument at all.

   So there you go.  Although I don't much care for the way this call was handled, I do like the court's take on it.

Colorado Court of Appeals People v. King 08CA1123

Decision here.

   I've got nothing to say about this one.  The decision says that a search warrant for a residence doesn't automatically confer the authority to conduct a strip search of the occupants of said residence (unless it says it does).  Happy reading.

US Supreme Court Perry v. New Hampshire (10-8974)

Read the decision here.

   When I first heard about this case, I thought the Supreme Court was going to rule on whether or not show-up field identifications were permissible.  After I read the decision, it turned out that wasn't quite the issue (but close enough).

   Here's the facts: Police in New Hampshire were investigating a call of suspect breaking into cars.  While an officer waited with the suspect in the parking lot, another officer met with the reporting party.  When asked to describe the suspect, the reporting party instead walked over to her window and pointed the suspect out.  He was subsequently arrested and charged with... doesn't really matter.  He was convicted, and he appealed.  The defendant (Perry) wanted the court to suppress his identification as the suspect because the manner in which the identification was carried out was too suggestive and therefore unreliable.

   A couple of things stood out for me about this case.  First, this wasn't a typical field identification.  There's a somewhat formal process in place for those... a suspect is detained, and then a witness is brought to the suspect after being informed that the person being detained may or may not be the person the police are looking for, and care is taken to make sure that we don't say anything suggestive to the witness or talk them into making an identification that they aren't really sure of.  Voila!  Field identification.  That isn't what happened in this case, though... the police never gave that kind of advisement, and they never asked the witness to look at Perry.  They just asked her to describe the suspect and then she pointed him out on her own.  The second point that stood out for me was that a month after the arrest the police showed the same witness a photo line-up which included Perry, and she couldn't pick him out.  I'm not really sure why they did that, especially so late in the game.

   Anyway, Perry wanted the eyewitness identification to be suppressed because it was unreliable.  In previous cases, the court has held that eyewitness identifications will be suppressed when the police obtain that identification using procedures that are so unnecessarily suggestive that they create a substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification.  Even when procedures are unnecessarily suggestive, the identification might be allowed in court if there are sufficient indicia of reliability to mitigate the improper procedure.  But that's the exact opposite of the instant case.  In Perry, there was nothing suggestive about the police procedures.  The identification was suggestive because of factors outside of police control, and unreliable because they had an unreliable witness to work with (and because eyewitness identifications are inherently unreliable).

   The court held that the reason for suppressing unnecessarily suggestively obtained identifications is to discourage police conduct.  More importantly, the court held that simple unreliability is not a reason to suppress evidence; it is the jury's role to weigh the evidence and decide what is reliable and what is not.  The proper way for the defense to undermine unreliable evidence isn't to use the exclusionary rule, but to educate the jury on the unreliability of the evidence (which they did, and Perry was convicted anyway).  So the field identification in this case was properly admitted into evidence.  

   So like I said, show up identifications aren't quite the issue in this case, after all.  Although this case would still be on point for a show up... here's my take (not necessarily the court's): when we do a show up identification, the process is inherently suggestive.  We do what we can to mitigate that (by telling the witness that the person detained may not be the suspect, and by being careful not to ask leading questions or reveal other evidence to the witness), but we're still taking a witness to see some guy who (hopefully) matches the suspect description and is surrounded by cops.  That's okay because it's necessary, but also because we're relying on other indicia of reliability to make sure that the identification is solid (indicia like the level of certainty the witness expresses, the degree to which the suspect matches the descriptions that witnesses have already given, the suspect's proximity to the crime scene, and the level of familiarity between the suspect and the witness).  We're leaning very heavily on all of that to overcome the necessary suggestiveness of the field ID procedure.  This is why it kills me when cops bring every witness they can find for a show up... seems to me like it would be better practice to just bring one or two to establish PC (or not), and then let the other witnesses identify the suspect later through less suggestive means (like a photo array).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


   I'm kinda excited about this project.

   Like it says in the "about the honorable court" page, I'm a cop.  My choice of career makes staying current on case law important to me.  I think that it should be a higher priority for police in general, but none of the departments that I've worked for have offered any programs to make staying current easy.  Every so often, your supervisor will discuss a recent case (which they may or may not interpret correctly).  Maybe once a year you'll go to a legal update class where someone will try to condense twelve months of statutory and case law changes into a couple of easily digestible hours.  Either way, you're going to miss a lot of important information.  Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the internet, it's not all that hard to go to the horse's mouth.  So I've been following the courts on my own by subscribing to legal blogs and watching the courts' web sites for new decisions.

   I've been pretty happy with that approach, but it wasn't complete.  I wanted a database that help me keep track of the decisions that I was reading, maybe even one that would help like-minded people benefit from my research.  Hopefully, that's what this blog will be.  I'll begin by posting some of the recent decisions that I've read, and I'll update the blog whenever another interesting case crosses my monitor.  Maybe a little later I'll go back further and add some old cases that should still be required reading for people in my field.  Most of the posts on this blog will be a link to a court decision along with a few paragraphs explaining my understanding of that decision.  If something is particularly interesting, or if you've got a different understanding of the decision than I do, then I'd love to hear from you in the comments for that post.  After all, i'm no more qualified than the next guy to interpret these decisions, and I could benefit from everyone else's take on the law as much as they could benefit from mine.