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Two SCOTUS Wins for Law Enforcement

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Among the cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court today, upon full briefing and argument, are one criminal case and one crime-related civil case. Both opinions are unanimous and mercifully short. There is also a summary disposition on a sentencing matter.

In Arizona v. Johnson, the Court upheld the frisk of a passenger during a lawful traffic stop upon reasonable suspicion the passenger might be armed and dangerous. The Arizona Court of Appeals had engaged in the kind of post hoc hair-splitting that drives police officers crazy. They analyzed the nuances of conversation between the officer and the passenger trying to decide when the passenger is no longer seized and, therefore, the authority to frisk supposedly ends.

We at CJLF do not agree that frisk authority necessarily ends with the end of a seizure, so long as the passenger remains on the scene, but the unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg takes a cutting-the-Gordian-knot approach. The passenger is effectively seized from the beginning of the traffic stop to the end, and the officer can frisk upon reaching the requisite threshold of suspicion of dangerousness.

In Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, the Ninth Circuit had attempted an end-run around prosecutorial immunity by letting the plaintiff sue supervisory prosecutors (including L.A. District Attorney and later Cal. AG John Van de Kamp) for supposedly "administrative" rather than "prosecutorial" decisions. No dice, writes Justice Breyer for a unanimous Court. "Immunity does not exist to help prosecutors in the easy case; it exists because the easy cases bring difficult cases in their wake. And, as Imbler pointed out, the likely presence of too many difficult cases threatens, not prosecutors, but the public, for the reason that it threatens to undermine the necessary independence and integrity of the prosecutorial decision-making process."

Nelson v. United States is a summary per curiam on the continuing saga of unraveling the spaghetti created by United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220 (2005). More on this is available at (where else?) Sentencing Law & Policy.


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A nice little side benefit of van de Kamp v. Goldstein is that the Ninth Circuit's opinion was written by Thelton Henderson and joined by Stephen Reinhardt. Nice to see them eat a unanimous reversal.

I have a feeling that "easy cases bring difficult cases in their wake" will be a catchphrase in a lot of Supreme Court briefs.

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