Tag Archives: search and seizure

US Supreme Court decision allows police to commit “reasonable mistakes” in detaining suspects

By Nick Barrickman
18 December 2014

In a blow to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a police officer detaining someone under a mistaken reading of the law could cite having made a “reasonable mistake,” and thus avoid having the court disregard all evidence obtained under such circumstances, provided that a law was “‘so doubtful in construction’ that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view.”

The ruling was made regarding Heien v. North Carolina, a case in which an officer pulled over a driver while under the mistaken belief that the latter’s driving with a single inoperable brake light constituted a violation of state law. After consenting to a vehicle search which revealed narcotics, the defendant, Nicholas Heien, sought to have the evidence suppressed by invoking the Exclusionary Rule, a component of the Fourth Amendment.

In an act which demonstrates a high level of political calculation, the Supreme Court seized upon a lower court’s ruling which found the police officer’s search to be illegal in order to overturn the decision. “The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to act reasonably, not perfectly, and gives those officials ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law,’” Chief Justice John G. Roberts stated in remarks supporting the majority’s opinion.

Expanding on the view of the majority, Justice Elena Kagan, an appointee of the Obama administration, stated “If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake.” Kagan stressed that such circumstances would be “exceedingly rare.”

Rather than being confined to traffic stops, the Court’s decision can be reasonably interpreted to give police the right to detain and search individuals under practically any circumstances.

In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised fears that this sort of conclusion would be drawn from the decision. “[The decision] means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down,” she said, adding that the concept of the law being “definite and knowable sits at the foundation of our legal system…” and that if officers are given leeway in such cases it may work to undermine the legitimacy of the court.

Reflecting this position, an amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted that “The rule creates new and unjustified burdens on private citizens by sanctioning an expansive new category of traffic stops, together with the ‘physical and psychological intrusion’ such stops necessarily entail.” It added that the ruling ran the risk of “diminishing the public perception of law enforcement officials’ knowledge and authority.”

The court’s attack on the Fourth Amendment has been a continuous one. Other Supreme Court rulings of note have allowed for police to enter private residences without search warrants, citing “exigent circumstances” after the fact, as well as the proliferation and institutionalizing of “no-knock” raids, which involve militarily-armed SWAT team members forcing down doors on suspicions of illegal doing.

The decision occurs as mass protests have swept the country in recent weeks in opposition to police killings and the militarization of law enforcement and erosion of basic democratic rights.

In the aftermath of the August police killing of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown in Missouri, protesters were confronted by police officers toting military-grade weapons and equipment and subjecting demonstrators to mass arrests for failing to obey arbitrary orders.

The decision to award police departments the power to detain drivers based upon what amounts to uninformed guesswork demonstrates the contempt that the US ruling class holds for the working population. Rather than reversing the process of police militarization and the undermining of fundamental democratic rights, the Democratic and Republican parties, the Obama Administration, and the Supreme Court all support the process in the name of “law and order.”

The Obama Administration, which sided with the Supreme Court’s decision, has been deeply involved in the process of militarization of police. In a review of the federal government’s programs which have been used to facilitate police militarization that was released early this month, the administration asserted that not only would such programs continue, but that they “have been valuable and have provided state and local law enforcement with needed assistance as they carry out their critical missions in helping to keep the American people safe.”

The author also recommends :

Obama’s paramilitary police: The “war on terror” comes home [03 December 2014]

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GPS, The FBI, and the Fourth Amendment

 

 

In 2004, Antoine Jones, owner and operator of a nightclub in D.C. was suspected of trafficking in narcotics. Various investigative leads were used by the DC police and the FBI, including visual surveillance, use of a camera focused on the front door of his club, and a pen register.

Based on information gathered from the sources, the investigators sought a search warrant allowing them to install an electronic tracking devise on a vehicle Jones used, a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a warrant authorizing the investigators to install the GPS tracking device in the District of Columbia within ten days. Then agents installed the device on the undercarriage of the Jeep on the 11th day, and while the jeep was in a public parking lot in Maryland.

After 28-day’s surveillance, Jones’ associates and stash houses were identified. District Police seized a total of 97 kilos of cocaine and $850,000. Jones and several of his co-conspirators were indicted, tried, and convicted in 2007.  They were sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal, the government had to concede they did not comply with the terms of the warrant, so they argued that a warrant was not needed. All 9 justices disagreed, for three different reasons. The main argument was that Jones’ vehicle was on a public street and there was no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Justices also took the position that police already had probable cause (which they needed for the warrant).  This probable cause was usually sufficient to search a car on the roadway, but that argument failed as it was not made to the lower court. Another position argued below was that it was not Jones’ car, as it was registered to his wife.  That argument was also waived as not being raised in the Supreme Court.  What was the ruling?

Five justices said the government trespassed upon private property (the undercarriage), similar to a constable hiding in the baggage compartment to see where it was going, or to overhear the conversations of the passengers, something which would have violated the constitution at the time it was first adopted.

Four others felt Jones did have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the use of the long term GPS tracking of his movements. One of the five, agreeing with the trespass holding, was more concerned with short term tracking, finding it invasive to see if a person visited a psychiatrist, an abortion clinic, a criminal defense attorney, a gay bar, an AIDS treatment center, which house of worship you go to or a pay by the hour motel.

What do we learn from this case? Comply with the conditions of the warrant. Serve it in the jurisdiction, and within the time frame. The court left open the question of the modern technology that would also allow tracking without actually placing a device on the car, with or without a warrant. U.S. v. Jones, January 23, 2012

David M. Waksman, J.D., is a nationally known former homicide prosecutor with vast experience in trying violent offenders and a former sergeant with the NYPD. He served for 35 years with of the Miami-Dade (Fla.) State Attorney’s Office, primarily in the Major Crimes Division. He teaches Case Preparation and Courtroom Presentation, Police Involved Shootings, Injury and Death Investigations, and Criminal Law, at the Miami Dade College School of Justice, In-Service Training Unit and at various police departments in South Florida.  He also taught for twenty years at the Homicide Seminar for the Southern Police Institute. His specialty is Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues. He has tried almost 200 jury trials, including 79 for first degree murder. He is the author of the Search and Seizure Handbook, 3/ed.  It was cited by the United States Supreme Court in Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586 (2006), available from Prentice Hall.

Learn more about this article here:

http://www.amazon.com/David-M.-Waksman/e/B001JRV3Q8

– See more at: http://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/2012/09/24/gps-the-fbi-and-the-fourth-amendment/#sthash.w0UcIBKb.dpuf

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