Posts Tagged ‘search and seizure’

SCOTUS makes a mistake anybody would have made. So it’s okay, right?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

The Fourth Amendment established one of our most important protections against government power: if the police search you or your stuff for evidence, their search must be ‘reasonable’; and if they do get a warrant then it has to be specific, and they’ll need probable cause. In writing, it couldn’t be more straightforward.

In practice, however, its meaning is anything but. Over the years, the courts have dramatically muddied the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Not as badly as the Fifth, perhaps, but badly enough to severely erode the Fourth’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The courts certainly weren’t trying to undermine the Amendment (well, not most of the time, anyway). It’s been a long series of discrete errors, gradually chipping away at what counts as an “unreasonable” search, and what can be done about it. And so legal types have long complained that the courts have been “eroding” our Fourth Amendment protections.

Sometimes this happens because the legally correct outcome sometimes seems so… wrong. What judge wants to let some vile nasty inhuman threat to society go free, on a mere “technicality?” Very often, this sense of “doing the right thing” in fact leads judges to make errors in law — waving away the protections this one bad guy had, and thereby creating a precedent that erases everyone else’s. It’s the “hard cases make bad law” principle, and it’s very real.

Sometimes this erosion happens because the courts simply don’t understand the law they themselves have created! Even the Supreme Court does this. It happens more often than you might think.

And yesterday, the Supreme court did it again.


The case is Heien v. North Carolina, and in a nutshell the Supremes said this: If a police officer mistakenly thinks something you’re doing is against the law, and if it’s a mistake any reasonable person would have made, then it’s okay if he stops you to investigate. The Court broadened the definition of “reasonable suspicion” so that now an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’ll still be allowed to stop and frisk you. Based on the justices’ own understanding of the law, it’s okay, they say.

Actually, it’s not okay. The Supremes themselves were mistaken about the law.

Was it a “reasonable” mistake?


It looks like, at the heart of this mistake, we’ll find the “Exclusionary Rule.” This is law invented by the courts, specifically for the purpose of enforcing the Fourth Amendment. If you’re charged with a crime, and the police have evidence they unlawfully seized from you, your only protection is the Exclusionary Rule: if the police got evidence by violating your rights, then that evidence cannot be used against you at trial. The officers are not themselves penalized in any way; all we do is take away the evidence that they shouldn’t have had in the first place.

This is a very civilized rule, if you think about it. In any situation, there’s a line the police cannot cross. Every situation is different, and the rules aren’t always clear. If the police themselves might be punished for inadvertently crossing that line, then they’re going to avoid going anywhere near it. Society would lose a lot of evidence that the police could have lawfully obtained. Guilty people whom society really wants to punish will get away with it. That’s bad. A rule meant to deter police conduct is not what we want. Instead, however, the Exclusionary Rule lets police go right up to the line, without fear of repercussion if they mistakenly cross it. All the rule does is take away the evidence they get from crossing the line if that happens. It merely excludes what they shouldn’t have had anyway. The rule has zero deterrent effect on police personally, and only serves as an incentive to collect evidence lawfully if they want to ensure its use at trial. It’s really quite elegant: the lawful evidence is maximized, the unlawful evidence is eliminated. What more could society want?

The problem comes when judges are mistaken about the law. When they say the Exclusionary Rule is all about deterrence. Which is precisely what the Rule isn’t about. They get the whole purpose of the Rule wrong, and then they base the rest of their reasoning off of that wrong premise. And they reach a result that’s not only wrong, but inconsistent, confusing, overcomplicated, and unjust. There’s some satisfaction in the guilty being punished, but in so doing they’ve made things worse for everyone else.

So say the police got a bad warrant, but they didn’t know it was bad. Acting in good faith, they seize evidence the Fourth Amendment absolutely forbids them from having. But they didn’t know it was bad. They sincerely and reasonably thought it was good. There’s no way to deter people against being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. So if you think the Exclusionary Rule is about deterrence, you’ll have to conclude that it’s literally pointless if the police were acting in good faith. And if you’re a court, you carve out an exception to the Fourth Amendment — a “Good Faith” exception –and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It happens all the time, and it happened yesterday.


As one might expect when a court is arguing from a mistaken premise, the Court’s justification was convoluted and strange. In an area where one would expect the law to be fairly current and on point, the Supreme Court had to reach way back to its earliest cases, especially about international-border customs seizures as opposed to Fourth Amendment seizures, to find something to justify itself. You can read the case itself here, and Scotusblog has a typically excellent analysis here.

The legal issue is whether “reasonable suspicion” is still “reasonable” if the police officer is wrong on the law. “Reasonable suspicion” itself is about the police officer’s assessment of the facts on the ground, whether he’s seeing someone casing a bank to rob it, or someone who’s just pacing back and forth in front of it lost in thought. Police officers aren’t mind readers, and so their suspicion can be reasonable even if their conclusion turns out to be wrong. The whole point of “reasonable suspicion” is to allow the police to investigate whether their suspicion is correct.

It’s never been about whether the officer’s understanding of the law was correct. We want to let the officer stop you to investigate whether his assessment of the facts was correct. An officer doesn’t need to stop you to investigate whether his understanding of the law is correct. It doesn’t even make sense to say reasonable suspicion is reasonable if the officer was wrong on the law.

The Court’s ruling essentially broadens the definition of reasonable suspicion so that an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’s still allowed to stop and frisk you.

Though it didn’t say so explicitly, the Court was essentially making the same “good faith” mistake all over again. A police officer is mistaken on the law. Not because he didn’t study it carefully, or because he was sloppy — no, it’s an error that any reasonable person would have made. Anyone would have thought you were breaking the law, despite the fact that what you were doing was technically legal. The officer’s mistaken belief wasn’t his fault. It was objectively reasonable. And there’s no way you can deter people from being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. And so if the Exclusionary Rule is about deterring police conduct, it’s simply pointless to apply it here. So we have to carve out an exception — a “Reasonably Mistaken” exception — and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It would be a mistake to argue that the Court was wrong because its reasoning was convoluted and it relied on irrelevant case law, however. That’s not the problem with the decision. It’s only an outcome, a symptom, of the underlying error. Once again, they presumed that the Exclusionary Rule is something it categorically is not. That’s their error. And our cherished Fourth Amendment probably means just a little bit less now, as a result.


So they were mistaken on the law. But it’s a mistake lots of judges, even those on the Supreme Court, have made before. It’s an “objectively reasonable” mistake.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

Hey feds, get off of my cloud (Followup)

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Last month, we posted on the senate hearings on whether the feds need to get a warrant before getting emails and other stuff stored in the cloud.  The Obama administration would rather let the feds continue to get such stuff without bothering to get a warrant, as they now can do under (very outdated) current law.  As we put it:

As the law currently stands, if an email is more than 180 days old, the feds are allowed to snag it without a warrant, under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  In yet another bit of Orwellian fractal weirdness, the ECPA was designed to ensure that online communications had just as much privacy protection as anything in the offline world.  (Given the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections in the brick-and-mortar world, a cynic might be tempted to crack that the ECPA has lived up to its expectations.)

And we quoted Sen. Patrick Leahy, who last year argued to drag law enforcement and the Fourth Amendment into the modern era:

Today, ECPA is a law that is often hampered by conflicting privacy standards that create uncertainty and confusion for law enforcement, the business community and American consumers.

For example, the content of a single e-mail could be subject to as many as four different levels of privacy protections under ECPA, depending on where it is stored, and when it is sent. There are also no clear standards under that law for how and under what circumstances the Government can access cell phone, or other mobile location information when investigating crime or national security matters. In addition, the growing popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, present new privacy challenges that were not envisioned when ECPA was passed.

Simply put, the times have changed, and so ECPA must be updated to keep up with the times.

Well, today Sen. Leahy proposed a new bill that might do just that.  The bill (pdf here) would get rid of that 180-day loophole, and require the feds to get a warrant no matter how old the email or data might be.


Obviously, we’re in favor of that.  But this bill goes farther than that.  If adopted, this bill would also:

  1. Prohibit cloud services from knowingly (more…)

Supremes Adopt and Define New “Police-Created Emergency” Doctrine

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Interesting Fourth Amendment decision from the Supreme Court this morning, in a case which at first glance didn’t seem all that cert-worthy.  The facts are as run-of-the-mill as they come — an undercover buy-and-bust, the dealer ran into a building, arrest team followed in just as one of the doors slammed shut but couldn’t tell which of 2 apartments the guy went into, from the hallway they smelled dank weed burning, the smell was stronger by the apartment on the left, the cops banged on the door and announced themselves, the cops heard stuff being moved around inside and figured it was evidence being destroyed, the cops burst in and found significant amounts of pot and cocaine.

The first time we read the facts in this case, we couldn’t help wondering “seriously, what’s the problem here?”  We’re well aware that the cops’ story might not be entirely truthful, but on the facts as given there just didn’t seem to be grounds for suppression.  The cops are allowed to pursue a suspect into the hallway of an apartment building (here it was a breezeway, arguably even less private).  The cops were entitled to bang on the door that smelled of burning marijuana.  There’s no Fourth Amendment prohibition against the police banging on your door and shouting “police police police.”  On hearing sounds consistent with destruction of evidence, it’s pretty well settled that an exigency now existed.  That’s one of the dozen or so exceptions where society’s interest in something (here, preservation of evidence) trumps the right against warrantless searches.  So seriously, what was the problem?

The problem was that the police arguably created the exigency themselves.  If they hadn’t banged on the door and announced their presence, there wouldn’t have been any evidence-destruction sounds.  Can the police manufacture an exception to the warrant requirement, one that would not have existed otherwise, and then rely on that exception to conduct a warrantless search?

Ah, now it gets interesting.

Writing for an 8-1 majority in Kentucky v. King, Justice Alito neatly described (more…)

Hey, feds, get off of my cloud

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Our jury’s still out, and there’s so much stuff to catch up on.  There’s the 5th Circuit’s denial of Jeff Skilling’s appeal, even though the Supreme Court had struck down the “honest services fraud” charge last summer.  We were so ready to write something about it yesterday, but work intervened, and now we’re not in the mood.  Maybe this weekend.

Instead, we’re all intrigued about the Senate hearings earlier this week on whether federal law enforcement ought to get a warrant before doing any search and seizure out there in the cloud.  Apparently, the Obama administration says the warrant requirement is just too much of a hassle.

The term “cloud computing” covers a lot of things, but for these purposes we’re talking about people storing data not on their own hard drives, but out there somewhere in the ether of the internet.  Of course, “out there somewhere” means “stored on someone else’s servers.”  Which means it’s there for the taking (or destruction) if those remote servers were to be compromised.  And of course, that means it’s out there for the seeing if law enforcement decides to go poking around in the cloud.

As the law currently stands, if an email is more than 180 days old, the feds are allowed to snag it without a warrant, under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  In yet another bit of Orwellian fractal weirdness, the ECPA was designed to ensure that online communications had just as much privacy protection as anything in the offline world.  (Given the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections in the brick-and-mortar world, a cynic might be tempted to crack that the ECPA has lived up to its expectations.)

As Vermont senator Patrick Leahy put it last September, when the Senate first starting considering changes to the ECPA, the statute

was a careful, bipartisan law designed in part to protect electronic communications from real-time monitoring or interception by the Government, as emails were being delivered and from searches when these communications were stored electronically. At the time, ECPA was a cutting-edge piece of legislation. But, the many advances in communication technologies since have outpaced the privacy protections that Congress put in place.

Today, ECPA is a law that is often hampered by conflicting privacy standards that create uncertainty and confusion for law enforcement, the business community and American consumers.

For example, the content of a single e-mail could be subject to as many as four different levels of privacy protections under ECPA, depending on where it is stored, and when it is sent. There are also no clear standards under that law for how and under what circumstances the Government can access cell phone, or other mobile location information when investigating crime or national security matters. In addition, the growing popularity of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, present new privacy challenges that were not envisioned when ECPA was passed.

Simply put, the times have changed, and so ECPA must be updated to keep up with the times

Think of it this way:  You’re storing your emails on a third party’s servers.  Isn’t there some lessening of your privacy expectations in that situation?  And on top of that, until maybe six or seven years ago, it wasn’t that outrageous to deem emails left on a third party’s servers for more than six months — instead of storing them to one’s own hard drive or local server for preservation — to be “abandoned.”  AOL users lost their emails after just a month or so.  If you didn’t actively save it to your hard drive, you didn’t want it.  (Forget, of course, the user’s reasonable expectation that the email would no longer exist in the first place.  Do not waste brain cells wondering whether one can abandon something that one believes to have already been destroyed.)

The point is, the law sort of made sense back in the 80s.  And it still kinda made sense when Google was new and Facebook was still in the future.

But now, things have changed.  In ways that are both dramatic and obvious to anyone who might be reading this post.  Now, by default, the vast majority of users do not store their emails locally (if they even know how to do so).  Emails are almost always accessed through a third party’s servers.  Almost nobody downloads their emails — and even if they do, the original remains on the server.

The vast majority of users expect that their emails, protected by their usernames and passwords, will remain private.  Even though the emails are stored out there in the cloud, the ordinary reasonable expectation is that they are private.

As we all know, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the search and seizure of stuff where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, unless law enforcement gets a warrant based on a showing of probable cause to believe that particular evidence of a particular crime will be discovered by the search.  (For those of you desiring a quick primer on the various exceptions that apply, you can certainly do worse than to listen to N. Burney and G. Mehler’s brilliant CLE lecture, “Search and Seizure in 60 Minutes“)

The exceptions to the Fourth Amendment essentially boil down to situations where the evidence would cease to exist if a warrant were sought, or there’s some other thing we want the police to be able to do (such as make sure people are safe) that might be deterred if they weren’t allowed to use evidence observed in the process.  None of the exceptions are based on a policy of “we probably wouldn’t have probable cause to search in the first place.”

But that is precisely the policy offered by the Obama administration this week.  We kid you not.  Here’s associate deputy attorney general James A. Baker, testifying on why the administration doesn’t want to have to get a warrant to search the cloud:

In order to obtain a search warrant for a particular e-mail account, law enforcement has to establish probable cause to believe that evidence will be found in that particular account. In some cases, this link can be hard to establish.

And if they aren’t allowed to search in cases where they cannot establish probable cause in the first place?  The consequences would be dire, he (more…)

It’s Just Stupid: How the feds screwed up their lawsuit challenging Arizona’s immigration law

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010


Now that we’re all immigration lawyers, we figured we’d better take a gander at the complaint filed yesterday by the feds, seeking to strike down Arizona’s new immigration law.  The feds say Arizona’s law is preempted by federal law and policy, and so must be struck down under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, art. VI, cl. 2.  (You can read the complaint for yourself here.  The text of the law can be found here.)

After reading the complaint in its entirety, we have to say that it’s mostly stupid.

The law was hotly criticized by the Obama administration even before it was enacted back in April, so it’s no surprise that this action was filed.  We’re surprised it took this long to do it.  And we’re even more surprised, given how long it took, that the feds did such a shoddy job of it.

In broad strokes, Arizona wants to deter illegal aliens from sticking around in Arizona.  To that end, among other things, the law:

  • Tells Arizona police they have to verify someone’s lawful presence if, during an otherwise lawful stop, they have reasonable suspicion that the person might be here unlawfully.  §11-1051(B) [referred to as Section 2 in the complaint].
  • Amends existing law, permitting police to make a warrantless arrest if the officer has probable cause to believe that a misdemeanor or felony has occurred, to add that the police can make a warrantless arrest on probable cause to believe the suspect committed an offense for which he could be deported.  §11-1051(E) [in Section 2 of the bill, but perplexingly referred to as Section 6 in the complaint].
  • says Arizona citizens can sue for money damages if any Arizona state or local official or agency “adopts or implements a policy” of not enforcing federal immigration laws to the extent permitted by federal law.  §11-1051(G) [Section 2].
  • makes it a crime of trespassing to be present in Arizona in violation of federal law.  §13-1509(A) [Section 3].
  • amends existing state law against smuggling human beings (§13-2319 [Section 4]) to permit the police to stop a car they reasonably suspect to be in violation of both a traffic law and the already-existing law against smuggling.
  • prohibits illegal aliens from seeking work in the state.  §13-2928(C) [Section 5].
  • makes it illegal for “a person who is in violation of a criminal offense” to transport or harbor illegal aliens.  §13-2929(A) [Section 5].

The general argument the feds make is deliciously ironic: Requiring compliance with federal law would conflict with federal law.  At first glance, it seems like everyone at the DOJ who approved this complaint skipped Logic 101, and listened instead to John Cleese’s logic monologue on the Holy Grail album.  But this is not really the stupid bit.

Their argument is more along the lines of (1) the feds get to determine policy of how and when the feds enforce their own laws; (2) Arizona isn’t telling the feds what to do, but it’s going to be enforcing the same laws more thoroughly; so (3) Arizona is messing with the feds’ policy.  This is one of the stupid bits, because nowhere does Arizona tell the feds what to do or how to do it.

The Complaint commits some intellectual dishonesty, however, to make it seem so anyway.  They repeatedly misquote the Arizona law to say a citizen can sue “any” official or agency for failing to enforce the immigration law.  They make it sound like Arizona citizens could sue federal officials for failing to enforce federal law.  But that’s not at all what is said.  The Arizona law only (more…)

Gawker Gets It Wrong

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010


As everyone reading this is probably aware, last Monday the website Gizmodo announced an exclusive look at Apple’s iPhone 4, which hasn’t been officially released yet. In their post (here), they said “you are looking at Apple’s next iPhone. It was found lost in a bar in Redwood City, camouflaged to look like an iPhone 3GS. We got it. We disassembled it. It’s the real thing, and here are all the details.” The post was written by blogger Jason Chen, and featured video of him showing details of the phone, and a lot of photos.

As time went on (see all the posts here), it came out that Gizmodo had paid $5,000 for the phone. The guy they bought it from wasn’t the phone’s owner, but had merely found it in a beer garden back in March. An Apple employee had lost it there.

So, if they bought it from someone who wasn’t the owner, and they knew it was supposed to be a secret, did the folks at Gizmodo commit any crimes here?

Law enforcement got involved very fast. By Friday, law enforcement in San Mateo had gotten a search warrant (viewable here) to seize Jason Chen’s computers, disks, drives, and any records pertaining to the Apple prototype 4G iPhone.

The search warrant was executed that same day, and a bunch of computer stuff was seized (the inventory is also viewable here).

Yesterday, the chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County told the WSJ’s “Digits” blog (here) that nobody’s saying a crime happened or not. They’re still investigating.

Meanwhile, however, Gawker Media (the owner of Gizmodo) issued a letter on Saturday (viewable here) stating that “under both state and federal law, a search warrant may not be validly issued to confiscate the property of a journalist.”

In support of that statement, Gawker Media cited California Penal Code §1524(g) (viewable here), which prohibits search warrants for items described in Evidence Code §1070.

Evidence Code §1070 (here) says a judge can’t hold a journalist in contempt for refusing to disclose his sources, or for refusing to disclose unpublished information gotten while preparing a story.

So we have to ask, does Gawker Media know what it’s even talking about?


There’s a big difference between a search warrant and (more…)

A New Emergency Exception for New York?

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010


The Fourth Amendment says the police can’t go into your home or other private place without a warrant. Over the years, we’ve come up with a lot of exceptions to the warrant requirement. So many, in fact, that getting a warrant has become the exception, and the exceptions have become the norm.

That’s because privacy isn’t the only interest society has here. The various exceptions to the warrant requirement allow the police to go in when other important interests outweigh the privacy interest.

One common exception to the warrant requirement is the Emergency exception. Under the emergency rule, the police can go in when there is good reason to believe there’s someone inside who needs help right away — either they’re seriously hurt, or they’re in danger.

In New York, that rule was formalized by the Mitchell case in 1976. The Mitchell rule has two objective conditions, and one subjective condition. If all three are met, then the police would be allowed to enter under the emergency rule. The objective conditions require that a reasonably prudent officer would first have thought there was an emergency, and second would have had probable cause to believe the emergency was inside the place to be searched. The subjective condition was that the police had to actually be going inside to help someone — the emergency couldn’t be a pretext for some other ulterior motive such as looking for evidence.

For about 15 years, now, the U.S. Supreme Court has been rejecting subjective rules like that. So far as federal law is concerned, the Supremes don’t care if the police had some ulterior motive or pretext. So long as there was a legitimate basis for the police conduct, they don’t care what the police were actually thinking.

So in 2006, in the Brigham City case, the Supreme Court specifically addressed the three-part Mitchell rule, and said New York’s subjective condition is not required under federal law. All federal law requires is that the police had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there was an emergency, and probable cause to believe that the emergency was inside the place to be searched.

That’s only the federal rule, however. Federal law only provides a minimum of protections, a base line of individual rights. The states can’t give less protection, but they can certainly grant greater protections. So New York remains free to adopt the Brigham City rule, or keep the Mitchell rule, or come up with a new one. (New York could even get rid of the emergency exception altogether, though that would be a silly result — nobody wants the police to be forced to watch helpless from the sidewalk while someone is being beaten to death on the other side of a window.)

But to date, New York’s courts have neither adopted nor rejected (more…)

First Look: “10 Rules for Dealing with Police”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Our friends at the Cato Institute forwarded this to us, and it looks like it even might be halfway decent. The folks at Flex Your Rights are about to release a new DVD, “10 Rules for Dealing with Police.” It looks like a primer on how the police can lie and trick people into giving up their constitutional rights. Not a shock to those of us who do this stuff for a living, but it might be worth a watch for others.

Supreme Search & Seizure: Court Uses Term to Attack 4th Amendment Absurdities

Friday, April 24th, 2009


The Supreme Court took on five Fourth Amendment cases this term. Four have been decided, and the fifth was argued on Tuesday. Although it may be premature to do so before the last decision comes down, we think it’s safe to draw some conclusions about the Court’s jurisprudence here, and predict what it might mean for the course of criminal justice.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. Like most other protections in the Bill of Rights, the whole point is to ensure that the State does not use its awesome power to override the necessary liberties and free will of individuals in a just society. The Bill of Rights prohibits the government from limiting ideas and their expression, from preventing individuals from arming themselves, from forcing soldiers into people’s homes, from extracting confessions by means that override the individual’s free will, from conducting secret “Star Chamber”-like trials or otherwise deny fair trials to defendants, from imposing indecent punishment, etc. If you sum up all the injustices that individuals face under medieval or tyrannical rule, the Bill of Rights pretty much says the U.S. government shall not do such things.

“Unreasonable” search & seizure basically means that, as a baseline, police ordinarily need to get a warrant first, by proving to a judge that they are more likely than not to find what they’re looking for, and that they’ll find it in the place they plan to look. There are exceptions to the warrant requirement, of course. Most searches don’t take place pursuant to a warrant, but under one of the exceptions.

If a person consents to a search, then no warrant is needed. Neither is a warrant needed if there is good reason to believe that evidence is going to be lost, or someone’s going to get hurt, if the cops take the time to get a warrant. There are various other exceptions.

The devil is in the details, of course. So the more exceptions you carve out from the general rule, the more room for error you create, and the more gray areas of confusion can pop up. Over the past few decades, various Fourth Amendment exceptions have indeed created confusion, gray areas, and absurdities.

The Supreme Court has taken the opportunity this term to attack those confusions, gray areas and absurdities head on.

On Tuesday, the Court ruled in Arizona v. Gant with respect to vehicle searches. (We reported on this here.) Back in the 60s, a warrant exception was carved out for searches of an individual and his “wingspan” — the area in his immediate reach — pursuant to a lawful arrest. The purpose was to ensure the safety of the officers and to preserve evidence. So long as the arrest was lawful, the search was lawful. Fast-forward to just after Reagan’s first swearing-in, when the Court expanded the search-incident-to-lawful-arrest to include the search of the passenger compartment of a car in which the arrestee had been riding.

Almost immediately after that ruling, everyone started to get the idea that cops could search the passenger area even after everyone was out of the car. The “wingspan” concept was lost, and instead a bright-line rule arose that, if the cops arrested someone who had been inside a car, then that car could be searched, period. Even after that person had long ago left the scene.

Some policy-makers like bright-line rules, because they require no thought. Individual circumstances need not be considered. An action that might not make sense, upon casual reflection, is still taken, because that’s the rule. If you don’t trust people to be able to weigh circumstances reasonably, then you give them bright-line rules.

And so it was that the police in Gant found themselves searching his car. Gant had already been arrested, handcuffed, and locked in a police cruiser, so the interior of his car was certainly no longer within his reach. So there was no reason to believe that he could destroy any evidence in the car or use something in the car to hurt the police. And he had been arrested for driving with a suspended license, not the kind of crime involving physical evidence, so there was no reason to believe that any evidence of that crime would be found in the car. In fact, the cops admitted on the stand that the only reason they search the car after the arrest was “because the law says we can do it.”

That was absurd. It’s an absurdity that just sort of happened, too. Nowhere in the 1981 Belton case did the Court lay out a bright-line rule. But that rule became the common interpretation, and has been the common interpretation for a quarter of a century.

On Tuesday, however, the Court finally stepped in to undo the absurdity. In a narrowly split 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the police are not allowed to search a car simply because they made an arrest. The bright-line rule was thrown out the window. Interestingly, the case made for strange bedfellows. Contrary to popular expectation, Scalia and Thomas joined the pro-defendant side, and Breyer joined the pro-government minority. Scalia, in fact, felt that the majority opinion didn’t go far enough to limit the government’s power to search a car after an arrest.

The dissent essentially boiled down to a version of stare decisis — the common interpretation has been around for so long, that it has become the law of the land, and should be treated as such. That’s an interesting, but flawed, rationale. Stare decisis has to do with longstanding judicial precedent, not with some sort of jurisprudential adverse possession. Common practice does not equal legal precedent. Just because nobody has bothered to claim till now that the common interpretation was wrong, that doesn’t mean that nobody ought to be able to claim that now.

Anyway, the rule now is that the bright-line rule is no more. Cops can only search the passenger compartment if they have reason to believe — on a case-by-case basis — that the arrestee can still gain access to the car or that the car contains evidence of the crime for which he had been arrested. They can’t go looking just because the guy was arrested. They can’t go looking for evidence of other crimes. (They can still, however, either get a warrant, or impound the car and do an inventory search.)

– – –

Argued the same day as Gant was decided was Safford Unified School District v. Redding. This also has to do with bright-line rules, in a way.

For context, the oral arguments were made almost to the day on the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings. Ten years ago, a couple of juvenile delinquents killed 12 people in a high school, the worst such violence that the U.S. has ever seen.

Due to the resulting hysteria and misinformation about the events, schools nationwide began passing bright-line “zero tolerance” rules out of fear that similar crimes might happen to them. Although it is now known that the killings were totally random, there arose a misconception that the killers sought out specific categories of victims. This led to panicked overreaction whenever a kid was found to have identified people in the school that they didn’t like. In fact, the killers wanted to kill everyone, setting (faulty) bombs to go off in the cafeteria (the fact that nobody every mentions the totally obvious similarities to the plot of the 1988 movie “Heathers” is beyond us).

Zero tolerance policies resulted in the expulsion of even little kids for bringing anything remotely resembling a weapon to school. Even when doing so was clearly absurd, as with water pistols, plastic army men, miniature toys, eating utensils, and the like.

Zero tolerance policies went after anything that might even slightly imply to the most paranoid hysteric an imaginary threat of unlikely harm to students or teachers. This included little girls hugging (because touching without permission can sometimes be a bad thing, all touching must be bad!). It included bringing a cake knife to school to cut a cake one had also brought to school.

And drugs are bad, by definition. So zero-tolerance included bringing any drugs to school. Passing out Tylenol can get kids expelled. It’s serious!

These bright-line zero-tolerance rules are imposed because school administrators are afraid. They’re afraid of their students. And they’re afraid of having to act rationally on a case-by-case basis. So they just over-react to everything, and establish bright-line rules so they don’t have to think.

And so we have Safford Unified School District v. Redding.

In Safford, we have a middle school (also in Arizona), where school authorities caught a 13-year-old girl with (gasp!) prescription-strength ibuprofen. This was a zero-tolerance school, and even though there is no way that ibuprofen counts as a dangerous drug, it was a bright-line prohibited medicine. So this girl was in serious trouble.

The girl (gasp!) pointed the finger at someone else. She said that another girl, Redding, had given her the medicine.

School officials have the authority to preserve the health and safety of their students. Most would say they even have the responsibility to do so. So it is not suprising that the school investigated the culprit’s claims.

Without taking the time to get a warrant, and acting only on the say-so of the girl they actually caught with the medicine, school officials searched Redding’s backpack, and found nothing. Then they took Redding to the nurse’s office, and searched her outer clothing. Nothing. Then they had her stretch out her bra and panties, exposing her breasts and genitals. Nothing. They shook out her underclothes, and her body was inspected by the nurse and another school official. Nothing. Then they put her in the principal’s office, and left her there alone for a few hours, without calling her mother or anyone else. No drugs of any kind were found during all this searching, and nobody else was strip searched.

Redding sued, claiming that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated when she was subjected to this strip search.

The school district seeks a bright-line rule that permits strip searches whenever a school has reason to suspect that a student has prohibited contraband on them. At the same time, and without appearing to notice the inherent hypocrisy, they argue that the courts should not second-guess the judgement of school officials. Here, they had a reason to suspect Redding, and that should be enough to let them strip search her.

Now, if the Court is inclined to lay down a bright-line rule at all here, that surely is not going to be the rule they impose. There is no way the Court is going to let school officials make an unreviewable decision as to whether there’s reason to conduct a given strip search or not.

Instead, they’d probably impose a bright-line rule requiring first that there be sufficient credible evidence — first, that this student has drugs in the first place; and second, that the drugs are concealed in the private regions of the student’s body.

But then, in addition to an evidentiary requirement, they’d probably have to include a proportionality requirement as well. The Court is unlikely to permit extraordinarily invasive searches for contraband that poses no real threat. Strip searches for plastic toys would be within the realm of lawful possibility, otherwise.

But if your bright-line rule requires weighing evidence on a case-by-case basis, and weighing proportionality on a case-by-case basis, then it really isn’t a bright line at all, is it?

No, we’re going to go out on a limb here and predict that the Court will reject any bright-line rule, and instead impose a balancing test. A good rule will require that strip searches are only allowed when there is credible evidence that the student is concealing contraband in or on her private body parts. Not just the say-so of another student trying to direct blame onto someone else.

And a good rule will require that a strip search be proportionate to the danger. It’s more reasonable if the kid’s believed to have explosives strapped to his body (a la Christian Slater in “Heathers”), or a weapon in his underwear, or decks of heroin in his nether regions. It’s not so reasonable if the kid’s only believed to possess a toy, or harmless medicine, or even a list of kids he doesn’t like.

A good rule will be fact-specific, and will require schools to actually exercise good judgment. A rule that lets them just act without thinking would be contrary to the direction this Court seems to be taking with its Fourth Amendment cases.

– – –

That leads us to the third Arizona case in this term’s Fourth Amendment decisions. On January 26, Justice Ginsburg wrote a unanimous decision for the Court in Arizona v. Johnson (which we wrote about here).

In Johnson, the Court clarified that a police officer can do a pat-down search, feeling someone’s outer clothing for weapons, if the officer has reason to believe that the person is armed and poses a threat to safety. The police don’t lose that ability to protect their own safety when other circumstances change.

Ginsburg pointed out that this really shouldn’t have been a point of confusion. A long line of cases, starting with Terry v. Ohio, clearly say cops can pat someone down for weapons if they have reason to believe the person’s armed and dangerous. And yet there obviously was confusion, evidenced by the Johnson case itself.

In Johnson, a female officer with gang experience was involved in a traffic stop. Before the stop, she had no reason to believe the passengers had committed any crimes. But during the stop, she saw things that led her to believe that one of the passengers was a gang member. She talked to him about things unrelated to the reason for the traffic stop, and some of the things he said led her to believe that he was armed and dangerous. So she asked him to step out of the car, to talk about things out of earshot of the other suspected gang members, then patted down his clothing and found a gun in his waistband. The passenger was later convicted of possessing the gun.

The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that the officer lost her authority to pat him down once she started talking to him about matters unrelated to the traffic infraction. Even though she had reason to believe he was armed and posed a threat to her, the fact that she had talked to him about other things erased her ability to pat him down for her own protection.

The unanimous Supreme Court cleared that right up. The passenger was already seized, and not free to leave. The fact that he was being asked questions about other things didn’t change that. And the officer did have reason to suspect that he was armed and dangerous, and the topic of conversation didn’t change that.

Now in one respect, this is a bright-line rule. And as we pointed out in our previous post, we have problems with this bright-line rule, insofar as it has to do with whether a person involved in a traffic stop is free to leave. Under the Court’s rule, the answer is simply no, until the stop is over or the police let him go.

But the meat of the decision is not a bright-line rule. It is yet another case-by-case analysis: did the officer have reason to believe there was a weapon and that she could be in danger? The ruling simplifies the analysis by removing other considerations from the equation, as being irrlevant. The bright-line issue of whether someone is seized or not really has nothing to do with the core issue. And the Arizona court’s issue of whether the conversation has switched topics is beyond irrelevant.

– – –

The fourth case this term was Herring v. United States, which had to do with the exclusionary rule. (We wrote about this decision here.)

In Herring, the Court ruled that the exclusionary rule doesn’t apply when a policeman acts on flawed information from law enforcement in the next county. Herring, a character who’d had several run-ins with local law enforcement in Alabama, went to get his truck out of impound. The officer ran a check to see if any warrants were outstanding for him. There was a hit for an outstanding warrant in the next county. Herring was arrested on that warrant, and drugs were found. It turned out that the neighboring county’s records were erroneous, and there wasn’t any warrant.

Writing for the narrow 5-4 majority, Chief Justice Roberts ruled that the error was too separate from the search and seizure of the drugs. The officer who conducted the search didn’t have anything to do with the error, and it would be pointless to attribute it to him. Thinking of the exclusionary rule as a rule of deterrence, Roberts said it should only apply when excluding seized evidence would deter wrongful conduct. So the police conduct would have to be sufficiently deliberate that it could be deterred. And the conduct would have to be sufficiently wrongful to be worth the loss of evidence.

It’s easy to see where the majority was going here. It’s common for people to think of the exclusionary rule as balancing, on the one hand, our concern for protecting individuals against unlawful government intrusions, against our concern against “letting people off on a technicality” on the other hand. So here, the arresting officer wasn’t being negligent. He acted totally reasonably, relying on a criminal justice database. Excluding this evidence wouldn’t deter future reliance on criminal justice databases, and we actually don’t want that kind of reliance to be deterred in the first place.

But that common way of thinking really is a misconception. The exclusionary rule is not a rule of deterrence. And thinking of it that way can lead to confusion.

The exclusionary rule is the typical remedy for police violation of Fourth Amendment rights, by suppression of the evidence that would not have been gathered but for the violation. This protects the justice system, by ensuring that the maximum lawfully-gathered evidence is available, while ensuring that defendants aren’t prosecuted with unlawfully-gathered evidence.

Police officers and departments are not punished for violations, because that would be deterrent — it would create an incentive to avoid borderline situations where evidence could have been obtained lawfully.

Rather than do that, the exclusionary rule lets officers go right up to the line of what they’re allowed to do, and only takes away what they shouldn’t have been allowed to get, the evidence they got by crossing the line. The get to keep the other evidence.

The exclusionary rule is not an individual right, but is rather a remedy that has been crafted over generations of thoughtful jurisprudence. It simultaneously maximizes protection of the individual’s rights, and society’s interest in law enforcement. It balances two powerful and competing interests, and it does the job elegantly. As such, it is a beautiful rule, but one that is nevertheless criticized — both by law-and-order types and by defendant-rights types — when its role is misunderstood. Unfortunately, it is misunderstood all the time, and the Supreme Court itself did so here.

– – –

The last case is Pearson v. Callahan, decided on January 21. It involved Utah police officers who conducted a warrantless search of a home. There were no exigent circumstances. Instead, they thought their conduct was lawful under the “consent once removed” doctrine.

This is a legal doctrine that had been gaining traction out west (and in New Jersey) since the early 1980s. The way it worked here was, they flipped a suspect into an informant. Then they sent the informant to his drug spot, the defendant’s home. The informant was invited in, saw drugs, and went back to tell the cops what they’d seen. The defendant had consented to allow the informant into his home, and that consent was deemed transferred to the cops, as “consent once removed,” and so the defendant was deemend to have consented to the police entry into his home. Under that doctrine, he’d consented, so they didn’t need a warrant.

The cops were sued, and the issue was whether they had qualified immunity here. The Court’s unanimous decision, written by Justice Alito, mostly dealt with a procedural issue raised sua sponte. But in the end they briefly mentioned the underlying issue of whether the police acted lawfully here.

The test for qualified immunity was whether the unlawfulness of the officers’ action was clearly established at the time of their actions. If it was clearly unlawful, then they did not have qualified immunity.

As it happened, however, there was a line of cases that instead established that this kind of “consent once removed” search was fine back in 2002, at least out west. So the police were entitled to qualified immunity.

Disappointingly, the Court did not deal with the issue of whether this kind of attenuated consent is actually proper now in 2009. So there’s really no meat to this decision, which is why we saved it for last.

– – –

All in all, it looks like the Court is shying away from any judicial activism here. Rather than creating broader interpretations of individual rights, or establishing greater police powers, the Court is focusing on clarifying existing rights and powers. And instead of expanding the existing rules, the Court is simply trying to rein in misconceptions and absurdities.

Part of that trend seems to be the relaxing of bright-line rules. Bright lines are great when you don’t want people to have discretion, when you don’t trust them to think, or they’re not trained to understand the issues. You get some efficiency that way. But in real life, facts don’t always fit within those lines, and an unthinking application of bright-line rules will sometimes result in injustice. This Court seems to be moving away from the seeming mass efficiencies, in favor of individual justice.

Well, we like that very much.

Supreme Court Undoes Belton, Dramatically Limits Car Searches

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009


In a stunning 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court today reversed its longstanding bright-line rule which had permitted warrantless car searches after an arrest, even when there was no concern for officer safety or the preservation of evidence. The case is Arizona v Gant.

Writing for the majority in this important decision, Justice Stevens held that the police may only search the passenger compartment of a vehicle, pursuant to the arrest of a recent occupant, if it is reasonable to believe that the arrested person might access the car while it’s being searched, or that the car contains evidence of the crime for which that person was arrested.

Interestingly, the votes were contrary to common stereotype. The majority, which limited police powers, included the two most right-wing justices in the popular mind, Scalia and Thomas. The minority, which would have expanded police powers, included two fairly liberal justices, Kennedy and Breyer.

Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. After he was arrested, the police handcuffed him and locked him in the back of their cruiser. Once he was secured, the police then searched his car and found a jacket on the back seat. In a pocket of that jacket, they found some cocaine.

The trial judge in Arizona denied the motion to suppress, saying that the police are allowed to conduct such a warrantless search of a car incident to arrest. The police had seen Gant driving without a license, so the search was incident to a lawful arrest, and that was enough for the trial court. The Supreme Court, after all, had ruled in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) that a warrantless vehicle search incident to lawful arrest was proper. At the suppression hearing, one of the officers explained that the search was done “because the law says we can do it.”

This is actually the common interpretation of Belton. It is widely regarded (and reviled) as a bright-line rule. Stevens pointed out in today’s opinion that it “has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search.” He added that “the chorus that has called for us to revisit Belton includes courts, scholars, and Members of this Court who have questioned that decision’s clarity and its fidelity to Fourth Amendment principles.”

The bright line has seemed only brighter in the past decade, however, especially after Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), which held that the police could seize evidence in plain view within a car even after an arrest for a mere traffic violation, regardless of whether there was an ulterior motive in making the traffic stop. So the trial court’s ruling was not a surprise.

Despite the common interpretation, Gant appealed, arguing that Belton shouldn’t be read so broadly as that. It shouldn’t permit a search of the car when the arrestee poses no present threat to the officers. And it shouldn’t permit a search of the car when there is no way it could contain evidence of the crime for which he’d been arrested. There was simply no exigency that satisfied the policy underlying the Belton rule.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed, and reversed. The Arizona Supreme Court found that Belton only had to do with how much searching could go on during a vehicle search incident to arrest, and did not have to do with whether such a search was permissible once the scene was secure. The Supreme Court of the United States had explained its underlying policy back in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), saying that the reasons justifying warrantless search incident to arrest is for the safety of the officers, and for the preservation of destructible evidence. In this case, those justifications did not exist at the time of the search.

The State of Arizona filed cert, arguing that the bright-line rule of Belton permitted the search, and that the common interpretation is the right one.

Writing for the majority, Stevens said that the bright-line rule, though the common interpretation, is the wrong interpretation. He saw that this came about because of an inappropriate reliance on Brennan’s dissent in Belton. Brennan had felt that the Belton rule created a legal fiction that the interior of a car is always within the immediate control of an arrestee, even when that person is no longer near the car at the time of the search.

Stevens acknowledged that this reading leads to absurd outcomes, including searched “incident to arrest” after the arrestee had long since left the scene.

To avoid such absurdity, the Court rejected the bright-line interpretation, and held that the underlying Chimel policy only authorizes vehicle searches incident to arrest “when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.”

The Court added a second condition when such searches are permissible, derived not from Chimel but from Scalia’s concurring opinion in Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 632 (2004). (Yet another example of a concurring or dissenting opinion later becoming law of the land.)

This second condition is when, based on the individual circumstances, it would be reasonable to believe there is evidence relevant to the particular crime for which the suspect was arrested.

The bright-line rule has clearly been demolished, and replaced with a case-by-case analysis of the facts.

Now bright-line rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing, in and of themselves. There is a tradeoff between the necessity to account for the vagaries of real life, and the necessity for an easily-understood rule that police can follow. Both considerations are necessary for the protection of individual liberties. If the line is too bright, then law enforcement can ignore common sense and violate rights just because they can. But if the rule is too convoluted, to take into account all the vagaries of real life, then law enforcement won’t understand it, and risks violating rights by accident (or on purpose).

Stevens came up with a rule here that we think is easy enough to understand. The police can conduct a warrantless vehicle search incident to arrest if:
(1) the arrestee can still reach into the passenger compartment, or
(2) there’s reason to believe that the car contains evidence relevant to the crime he was arrested for. That’s not going to cause any confusion. Police officers and trial judges won’t have a hard time applying it.

– – –

There has been a movement in American jurisprudence away from formalism and bright lines, toward balancing. Instead of emphasizing bright-line rules requiring warrants, or dispensing with the need, the courts have been leaning more towards whatever is reasonable under the particular circumstances. A judicial, backward-looking approach, rather than a legislative one.

This ruling clearly fits that trend.

Well, except for Scalia’s concurring opinion. This ruling is in large part a result of his Thornton concurrence, but his focus is still a legislative, forward-looking approach, at least with respect to the process of judicial interpretation. His first sentence begins: “to determine what is an ‘unreasonable’ search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, we look first to the historical practices the Framers sought to preserve…”

We find this concurrence to be almost as good a read as his dissents. He lays plain the absurdities of the bright-line rule, only hinted at by the majority opinion. He does acknowledge that the Founders weren’t thinking of this stuff at all. And he tears the dissent of fellow conservative Alito to shreds. But we’ll let you read it all for yourself.

For now, suffice it to say that a major case was decided today, and the ruling is a good one for defendants and law enforcement both.

Supreme Court Expands “Stop and Frisk” Authority

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009


On Monday, a unanimous Supreme Court reiterated its rule that a police officer may pat down the passenger of a car that was stopped for a traffic infraction, if the officer has reason to believe the passenger is armed and dangerous. The Court also added that the authority to conduct a patdown doesn’t end when police start asking about matters unrelated to the traffic stop.

Writing for the Court in Arizona v. Johnson (No. 07-1122), Justice Ginsburg pointed out that this is not exactly new law. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, held that police are allowed to ask the driver of a car to get out, after a lawful traffic stop. The interest in officer safety outweighed the “de minimis” additional intrusion of having the driver exit the car. Then, once the driver is out of the car, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, says he can be patted down if there’s reason to believe he’s armed and dangerous.

Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, said that the Mimms rule applies to passengers the same as to drivers. Passengers and drivers both have the same incentive to avoid being arrested for more serious crimes than the traffic violation, and have the same incentive to use violence to avoid such arrest. The interest in officer safety again outweighed the “minimal” additional intrusion of being asked to exit the car. Everyone’s already been seized, essentially, by the car stop.

Here, Officer Maria Trevizo, of Arizona’s gang task force, was part of a car stop for driving with a suspended registration. At the time of the stop, she had no reason to suspect any of the passengers of a crime. However, on approaching the car, she saw that the passenger Lemon Johnson wore Crips clothing, and had a police scanner sticking out of his pocket. When asked to identify himself, Johnson said her was from Eloy, Arizona, which Trevizo knew was a Crips gang location. Johnson also said he’d done prison time for burglary.

Trevizo wanted to ask more questions out of earshot of the others in the car, to see if she could get any info about the gang Johnson might have been in. So she asked him to get out of the car. Her observations so far, plus his statements, gave her reason to think he might be armed, so when he got out she started to perform a Wilson frisk. When she found a gun in his waistband, Johnson started fighting with her, and she handcuffed him. Johnson was later convicted at trial of, among other things, possession of a weapon by a prohibited possessor.

The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, holding that Trevizo’s authority to pat him down ended when she started asking about matters unrelated to the traffic stop. Yes, he was initially detained pursuant to the traffic stop, but then the encounter devolved into a consensual conversation. As Johnson was no longer technically seized by the car stop, the police no longer had authority to conduct a patdown.

The Supreme Court held that the Arizona court got that wrong. Nothing ever happened that would have given Johnson reason to believe he was free to leave without police permission. He was seized by the car stop, and a reasonable person would understand that throughout the time the car is stopped, he isn’t free to just walk away. The mere fact that Johnson was being questioned about non-traffic-related matters wasn’t something that would change that understanding.

Moreover, the Arizona ruling just didn’t make sense. If it was to stand, then an officer who asked a passenger to step out of the car would have to first give the passenger a chance to walk away, before being allowed to pat him down. “Trevizo was not required by the Fourth Amendment to give Johnson an opportunity to depart without first ensuring that, in so doing, she was not permitting a dangerous person to get behind her.”

Other writers out there are seeing this ruling as a travesty, another nail in the coffin of Fourth Amendment protections. Over at Simple Justice, for example, the mere reiteration of the existing Wilson rule is called “the evisceration of rights by baby steps.” It’s clear that such writers simply disagree with the greater value the courts have placed on officer safety, as opposed to the freedom from being patted down. Those are their values, and we can’t fault that.

But critics such as these are missing the real point of the case, which is that a traffic stop never devolves to a lesser encounter until either the traffic stop is over, or until the police say so. To us, this seems to be a far more troubling bright line. Certainly, situations can be envisioned in which a passenger would reasonably believe that he was free to leave, even though the stop wasn’t over and the officer might disagree.

We, for example, once took a cab to an important meeting across town. The cab driver, playing to type, showed a remarkable ignorance of the workings of a motorized vehicle, as well as the difference between the street and the sidewalk. One of New York’s finest swiftly stopped the cabbie before anyone (including us) got hurt. While the officer dealt with the cabbie, we simply walked away and caught another cab. Under this new ruling, however, it would have been appropriate for the officer to stop us. The officer could then even frisk us, if he thought the wallet in our suit jacket was a suspicious bulge.

That’s what you get with bright-line rules, though. One the one hand, you get the efficiency and most-of-the-time fairness of an easy rule for officers to remember and follow. But on the other hand, you lose case-by-case judgment, and wind up with exceptional situations of authorized injustice. Yet another pair of considerations for the ongoing balancing test that is the law.

Justices Miss the Point of the Exclusionary Rule

Thursday, January 15th, 2009


The Bill of Rights, notably Amendments 4-6, protects accused individuals from improper action by the police. The typical remedy for police violation of these rights is suppression of the evidence that would not have been gathered but for the violation. This Exclusionary Rule protects the justice system, by ensuring that the maximum lawfully-gathered evidence is available, while ensuring that defendants aren’t prosecuted with unlawfully-gathered evidence. Police officers and departments are not punished for violations, because that would create an incentive to avoid borderline situations where evidence could have been obtained lawfully. Rather than do that, the Exclusionary Rule lets officers go right up to the line of what they’re allowed to do, and only takes away what they shouldn’t have been allowed to get.

The Exclusionary Rule is not an individual right, but is rather a remedy that has been crafted over generations of thoughtful jurisprudence. It simultaneously maximizes protection of the individual’s rights, and society’s interest in law enforcement. It balances two powerful and competing interests, and it does the job elegantly. As such, it is a beautiful rule, but one that is nevertheless criticized — both by law-and-order types and by defendant-rights types — when its role is misunderstood. Unfortunately, it is misunderstood all the time.

So it was no surprise to see plenty of misunderstanding of the Exclusionary Rule in yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Herring v. United States (No. 07-513). Split 5-4 (and with delightful sniping in the footnotes), the justices on either side of the ruling tried to clarify what the Exclusionary Rule means, but only demonstrated that they’re missing the point. All of them. In their attempt to clarify the rule, all they did was muddy the waters.

That’s right, we just said that we understand the Exclusionary Rule better than the Supreme Court. Modesty is not our strong suit.

The Herring case arose in Coffee County, Alabama. Bennie Dean Herring was someone who’d had his share of run-ins with law enforcement over the years. His truck was impounded, and he went to the Sheriff’s Department to get something out of it. When one of the Sheriff’s investigators found out, he had the Coffee County warrant clerk check to see if Herring had any outstanding warrants. There weren’t any in Coffee County. Then they called neighboring Dale County to check. The Dale County computers showed an active arrest warrant for failing to show up in court on a felony charge. Based on that information, the Coffee County officer pulled Herring over as he left the impound lot, arrested him, and recovered methamphetamines and an illegal gun.

In the meantime, the Dale County warrant clerk went to get a copy of the warrant, to send to the Coffee County officer. But there wasn’t one in the file. So the clerk checked with the court, and found out that the warrant had been recalled. For whatever reason, the information never got from the Dale County court to the Dale County warrant database. The warrant clerk called the Coffee County warrant clerk immediately, and the warrant clerk immediately called the officer, but the arrest and search had already taken place.

At trial, Herring moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the arrest was illegal, as the warrant it was based on no longer existed. The trial court said the evidence was admissible, because the officer did nothing wrong, and acted in good faith on information that the warrant was still outstanding.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the Coffee County officer did nothing wrong. Any error was independent of that officer. The error was the result of negligence on someone else’s part, and was moreover a negligent inaction rather than some government action. The Circuit therefore held that the negligence was so attenuated from the officer’s actions that any benefit to be gained by suppression, and so the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule of U.S. v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that, even if the search or arrest was unreasonable, the Exclusionary Rule doesn’t always apply. It’s a last resort only. He reiterated that exclusion is not a right of the individual, but is instead a deterrent. The benefits of a deterrent must be weighed against its costs.

Thus, when police have acted in “objectively reasonable” reliance on a warrant that was later held to be invalid, or on a statute that was later declared unconstitutional, or on a court (not police) database that mistakenly stated that an arrest warrant was outstanding, the Supreme Court has held that the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule. The Court had held that evidence should be suppressed only when the officer knew or should have known that the search was unconstitutional. Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340 (1987).

“Objectively reasonable” (or “good faith”) means “a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal, in light of all the circumstances.” It’s not a subjective test of what the officer actually intended, but rather a test of what he should have known. Here, there was no reason to believe that the Coffee County officer wasn’t being objectively reasonable in relying on the information from Dale County’s warrant clerk. So the officer did nothing requiring suppression.

The underlying error didn’t require suppression, either. Here, the clerical error wasn’t the result of a recklessly-maintained system. Nor was it the result of the police planting false information for the purpose of justifying false arrests later on. The kind of clerical error here is not something that the Exclusionary Rule could affect or deter meaningfully.

Roberts concluded by saying “we conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than a systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, any marginal deterrence does not ‘pay its way.’ In such a case, the criminal should not ‘go free because the constable has blundered.’”

In this opinion, Roberts’ reasoning was certainly sound. However, he amplified the erroneous viewpoint that the proper policy purpose of the Exclusionary Rule is to deter future misconduct. The policy is categorically not to deter. Deterrence is a purpose of punishment, and this is not a rule of punishment. Deterrence gives the police an incentive not to approach the line of impermissibility. That is precisely what the Rule is designed to avoid.

The Exclusionary Rule is not a rule of deterrence or of punishment, but is instead a rule of balancing — balancing individual rights with society’s interests in law enforcement. Roberts does get the concept, as in his discussions of balancing marginal utility against cost. But his repetition of the “deterrence” fallacy just confuses an otherwise clear argument.

Justice Ginsberg similarly the Exclusionary Rule in her dissent (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer). Like Roberts, Ginsberg says the purpose is deterrence. But she goes even further to say that the Rule should be used to deter practically all police error.

This is a much more expansive purpose for the Exclusionary Rule (or as Ginsberg puts it, “a more majestic conception”). She goes so far as to say that any arrest based on carelessly-maintained database information would be unlawful, and would require suppression.

If the Rule were to be used as a deterrent, Ginsberg does make an argument that its marginal utility even in cases of carelessness, like this one, is sufficient to justify its use. Suppressing evidence could very well lead to reforms in the data management, to ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again. But exclusion is not the only means to that end, and is not even a very suitable means, as there is no actual pressure on the record-keepers to change their ways. The more effective means would be pressure from police leadership and political superiors to fix the process. Also, exclusion of evidence in County A is hardly likely to influence behavior in County B.

Justice Breyer issued his own dissent, joined by Justice Souter. In it, he makes the same error of ascribing deterrent purposes to the Exclusionary Rule, rather than the purpose of balancing interests. And as a result, he falls into the same trap of reasoning as Ginsberg.

Breyer wants a bright-line rule. Because of his focus on deterrence, he would draw the line between the police and the courts — if the error was made by court personnel, then they are not going to be deterred by suppression, so the Exclusionary Rule should not apply. But if the error was made by any police personnel, then the Rule should apply. Breyer fails to explain, however, how police database clerics are in any way deterred from negligent error by the suppression of evidence seized as a result of such error. He similarly fails to explain how court clerks are somehow different, so that they could not have been so deterred by suppression.

Ginsberg and Breyer’s arguments fall apart because they’re looking at suppression as a punishment, a deterrent, rather than as the result of a balancing of competing interests. Roberts gets it, but he too makes the same mistake to some degree. This decision seems to have muddied the waters, instead of clarifying the rule.

Oh well, better luck next time guys!

NYPD and DOJ Wiretap Fight: Each Accuses the Other of Endangering the Public

Friday, November 21st, 2008


Over the summer, New York City’s police force demanded that the FBI and the Justice Department make it easier to get wiretaps on suspected terrorists. The feds refused, and the dispute has escalated ever since. The New York Times reports that correspondence has flown between the U.S. Attorney General and the Police Commissioner themselves, as “each accuses the other of mishandling terrorism cases and embracing an approach that made the public more vulnerable.”

Wiretaps are considered one of the most invasive state actions, and so any request for electronic eavesdropping is going to be put under enormous scrutiny before it is ever presented to a judge. Every “i” must be dotted, every “t” must be crossed, and no detail is too small to be overlooked. The slightest inadvertent error can result in a wire being deemed improper, resulting in the exclusion of all the evidence gathered as a result. No law enforcement agency wants to spend vast amounts of time and money on a wire investigation, only to have the evidence thrown out.

So prosecutors carefully prepare wire applications, dissect them, and then send them up the chain of command for approvals. In the DOJ, these internal approvals can take an extraordinarily long time. New York City prosecutors, with bureaus specializing in such applications, can turn around a wire application much faster. Although both tend to err significantly on the side of caution, to minimize the chance of error being found down the road, the feds are much more cautious than the city prosecutors, and will reject wiretap applications that would have passed muster in the DA’s office.

Also, federal wiretaps tend to be short and sweet, not often extending beyond the initial 30-day period normally authorized. Renewal of the authority requires another application, and there just isn’t time to jump through all the hoops while the evidence is still coming in. City-initiated wiretaps, on the other hand, can sometimes extend for 18 months or longer, as they lead to more phone lines and additional evidence.

So there is already a cultural divide between federal and city law enforcement when it comes to wiretaps. The feds are traditionally much more cautious and unlikely to request a wiretap,* while NYC law enforcement, though still very cautious, is not nearly so shy.

Now enter the FISA Court.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is set up to review applications for warrants to eavesdrop on suspected spies or terrorists. The court must find probable cause that the target of the surveillance is a foreign agent or terrorist, that the wiretap is going to turn up evidence of such activities, and there is no reasonable less-invasive way to get the evidence.

Only the FBI and the DOJ have access to the FISA Court, however. So if the NYPD wants to get a warrant, it needs to submit it to federal scrutiny. That subjects their applications to much lengthier review, as a result, and also makes them more likely to be rejected and not presented to the court in the first place.

The NYPD now believes that its efforts are being thwarted, and accuses the feds of improperly blocking its wire applications.

So on October 27, police commissioner Ray Kelly accused the feds of putting the public at risk by being too nit-picky. He wrote that the feds were “constraining” critical terrorism investigations, and “doing less than is lawfully entitled to protect New York City,” so that “the city is less safe as a result.”

Four days later, attorney general Mike Mukasey wrote back saying that the city’s approach would be counterproductive, because they’d seek warrants that might exceed what the law allows, so that the evidence gathered could be thrown out, thereby making the citizens less safe.

Mukasey seems to see the FISA Court as little more than a rubber stamp. Presumably, if the court was doing its job, a warrant application that didn’t satisfy the law would be rejected by the court itself. But the DOJ appears not to trust the court to do its job, and so would act as a stand-in for the court.

Although the NYPD didn’t make that point, it did respond by putting the blame squarely on the DOJ for taking too long to review applications, and for applying “a self-imposed standard of probable cause which is higher than that required by Supreme Court precedent.”

As a former prosecutor who did quite a lot of wiretaps involving both city and federal authorities, your humble blogger will be very interested to see how this pans out. In the meantime, it looks like the fight is only getting started. Stay tuned.

* This perplexes the New York Times, which has long accused the Bush administration of trying to improperly extend its wiretapping authority and other national security powers. Many insiders, however, blame the administration for trying too hard to appease its opposition by limiting governmental powers and announcing that to the world, thereby only creating opposition where none previously existed. So while the criticism from the left about wiretapping and other legalities may have been undeserved, the administration has no-one to blame but itself.