Recently in Search and Seizure Category

Earlier this morning, Bill noted that the U.S. Supreme Court decided Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604, and copied an accurate summary of the decision from the Heritage Foundation. I want to explore a little further the important distinction between the substantive scope of the Fourth Amendment and the judge-made rule of exclusion of evidence found to have been obtained in violation of that amendment.

Today's decision answers a question that does not arise that often.  Is a search "unreasonable" within the substantive scope of the Fourth Amendment if the police officer acts on an interpretation of the law that is reasonable (and not contrary to any precedent existing at the time) but that a court subsequently finds to be incorrect?  The Supreme Court says no, 8-1, but both the majority and the concurrence note that this is a more demanding standard than the generous one provided for qualified immunity for civil liability.  As Justice Kagan puts it in the concurring opinion,

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. But if not, not. As the Solicitor General made the point at oral argument, the statute must pose a "really difficult" or "very hard question of statutory interpretation." 
I look forward to citing the "really difficult standard" in a brief.  Justice Kagan goes on to say these cases will be "exceedingly rare."  That is perhaps a tad of an overstatement, but I do not expect them to be common.

This case got to the Supreme Court with this question because, as Justice Sotomayor notes in the dissent, "unlike most States, North Carolina does not provide a good-faith exception as a matter of state law."  An exception, that is, to the rule that once a Fourth Amendment violation is found the evidence must be suppressed.  States can, if they wish, have broader exclusionary rules than federal law requires, so they do not have to follow the various good-faith exceptions that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized.    This is why CJLF passed on the case and did not file an amicus brief.  Our interest is in the broader exclusionary rule question, not the interesting but rarely occurring substantive Fourth Amendment issue decided today.

So here is the bombshell question not answered today but reserved for a future case:  Should the U.S. Supreme Court stop carving out individual good-faith "exceptions" to an overall rule of suppression of evidence and instead make "bad faith" a required element of a defendant's motion to suppress evidence?
The Supreme Court today decided Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604, involving the propriety under the Fourth Amendment of a police search.  The Heritage Foundation aptly describes the decision this way:

The Fourth Amendment prohibits (inter alia) "unreasonable" searches and seizures.  For the past 50 years, the Supreme Court has crafted rules for law enforcement officers to follow, in order to make it easier for the police to know what is and is not reasonable.  Additionally, the Court has construed that term to allow the police to make reasonable mistakes of fact, reasoning that the "probable cause" necessary to effect a search or seizure does not require an officer to be absolutely right, just "reasonable."

Today, Roberts, writing for an 8-1 Court, ruled that the term "reasonable" includes reasonable mistakes of fact and law.  An officer, who mistakenly but reasonably believed that the driver of a vehicle had violated a state traffic law by having only one working brake light, stopped the vehicle and ultimately found cocaine, which was used to convict the driver and passenger.  Because the officer's interpretation of the traffic law was reasonable, Roberts concluded, there was no Fourth Amendment violation.  Kagan wrote a separate opinion, joined by Ginsburg, to emphasize the narrowness of the Court's opinion.  Sotomayor dissented on the ground that, regardless of how the exclusionary rule should be applied, there is no "mistake of law" exception to the Fourth Amendment.
Sudhin Thanawala reports for AP:

A California appeals court Wednesday struck down a state law that requires the collection of DNA from anyone arrested on suspicion of committing a felony.

The 1st District Court of Appeal said Wednesday that the state Constitution's ban on unreasonable search and seizure prohibited the DNA collection using a cheek swab. The law was approved by voters in 2004.

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There was no immediate order stopping police in California from continuing to collect DNA, and the appellate court's ruling could be appealed.

*                                                   *                                          *

The appeals court in Wednesday's ruling was reviewing an earlier decision it issued on the law in light of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a similar Maryland law. The earlier ruling also found the California law unconstitutional.

The appeals court said the Supreme Court decision did not apply in this case in part because of significant differences between Maryland's law and California's law. Maryland's law, for example, only allows the DNA of suspects to be tested after they have been charged with a crime. California's law allows testing even before charges are filed. The California law also applies to all felony suspects who are arrested regardless of the seriousness of the alleged crime.

The reason that there is no order stopping police from collecting is that this is an appeal from a criminal conviction and not a civil action for an injunction.

Looks like criminal law and law enforcement are going to be a bigger part of this Term of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Court's Monday orders list took up for full briefing and argument three criminal and related cases:

Chappell v. Ayala, No. 13-1428, the Ninth Circuit decided in favor of California death row inmate Hector Ayala.   The case involves the interaction between harmless error analysis and the deference owed to state court decisions when an inmate takes his rejected claims to the federal courts on habeas corpus.  If I'm not mistaken, the Ninth Circuit's batting average in California capital cases, once certiorari is granted, is .000.

Los Angeles v. Patel, No. 13-1175:  Does a hotel have a privacy interest in its guest register, so that police cannot inspect it at will even though a local ordinance says they can?  There are a lot of heavily regulated industries that have such requirements.  The government can go through an auto wrecking yard checking the VINs for stolen vehicles, for example.  No warrant or particularized basis of suspicion required.  How about hotels?

Henderson v. United States, No. 13-1487:  What to do with a defendant's guns when, as a result of his conviction, he can no longer legally possess them?

More on Heien v. North Carolina

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On Monday, I wrote this post on the oral argument in Heien v. North Carolina, a case where the defendant wants evidence resulting from a traffic stop suppressed.  A police officer stopped the car for having only one of two brake lights working, and the state court of appeals, to the surprise of just about everyone, decided that was not a violation in North Carolina.

If the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with the North Carolina Supreme Court that the officer's good faith belief about the law makes this a reasonable seizure, then the case is simple.  If not, it gets complicated.  Rory Little has this analysis at SCOTUSblog predicting that the Court will indeed take the simple route and affirm the state court on the substantive Fourth Amendment question, leaving the complicated issues to another day.
FBI Special Agent John Cauthen has this article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
It's not a good sign when most of your argument before the U.S. Supreme Court is taken up with being grilled by the Justices on whether you have asked the right question, without all that much discussion of whether you have the right answer.  That happened today in the argument of Jeff Fisher for the petitioner in Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604.  The transcript is here.

Questions and potential questions in this case include:

1.  Is it legal to drive in North Carolina with only one of the two originally installed brake lights working?

2.  If so, does a police officer's stop of a vehicle in the reasonable belief it is not (there being no published decision to the contrary and the statute being ambiguous at most) violate the Fourth Amendment and the parallel provision of the North Carolina Constitution?

3.  If so, is suppression of the resulting evidence (drugs in the car) required?
UC Irvine Law Dean Erwin Chemerinksy has this op-ed in the NYT, titled "How the Supreme Court Protects Bad Cops." 

Chemerinsky is upset about the doctrine of qualified immunity in civil suits against police officers for excessive force.  Okay.  Although I generally support it, at times I have had some qualms about some aspects and applications of that doctrine myself.  But just looks at what he says to support this argument.
As Bill noted Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court in Riley v. California declined to extend to contemporary phones the doctrine that when a person is arrested everything on him can be searched without a warrant.

This case involves applying a two-century-old constitutional provision to technology that was nearly unimaginable even twenty years ago, much less two hundred.  The approach used in Chief Justice Roberts' unanimous opinion for the Court is to assess the degree of intrusion and balance that against government interests.  I think we should also look at the Fourth Amendment itself and see if anything is closely analogous.  The First Congress's handiwork, ratified by the requisite number of states, goes out of its way to protect "papers."  The emails stored on a modern smart phone have the same informational content as the "papers" of 1791.  It is the message, not the medium, that matters here, Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding.

The asserted justifications for searching the phone immediately without a warrant are weak.  The police can seize the phone, remove the battery, and put it in the evidence locker.  It's not going anywhere, and neither is the data, while they explain to a magistrate why they need to search it.  I have no problem with the substantive Fourth Amendment holding in this case.

But the police were not, or should not have been, the ones on trial in the case of the People of the State of California v. David Riley.  The questions to be decided in that case were whether Riley carried concealed and loaded weapons and whether he did so to benefit a criminal street gang.  Should the contents of the phone, surely admissible if the police had gotten a warrant, be excluded from evidence on the gang question simply because they did not know they needed to get one?

The Supreme Court did not say, and it was not asked to say.  But I think the question is important.
Continuing its mediocre record in the Supreme Court, this Administration's SG's Office lost in the Riley and Wurie cases today, failing to get a single vote.

The cases concerned, as I noted before, a complicated and important Fourth Amendment question, and I did not attempt an answer, not least because, unlike the rest of the world, I don't even carry a cell phone.  I did predict that the Court would not simply walk away from the search-incident-to-arrest rule of Robinson, and it didn't.  The Court declined to extend that rule, however, to cell phones.  It's hard to argue with the result, given, as the Chief Justice points out, that cell phones can and often do contain the owner's entire life, and that they do not present the sort of immediate physical danger to officers that the search-incident-to-arrest rule was created to contain.

The Court's opinion in the two cases is here.

Stark Raving Mad

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I have said many times that this Justice Department is politicized to a dangerous degree, bends its decisions to ideology, engages in gross overreach, and often views criminals and inmates as its constituency over normal people.  Much more often than I would like, the Supreme Court goes along with it.

But there are limits on what kind of conservative criticism is still connected to the real world, and this surpasses them by a wide, wide margin.

There are weighty questions on how much government surveillance is too much in a dangerous world, but.........ummmmm..........hello!
Although Hall v. Florida got most of the attention yesterday, the Supreme Court also decided two cases in favor of the police, both unanimous at least in part.

Plumhoff v. Rickard involves the police's use of deadly force against someone who led them on a high-speed chase over 100 miles an hour and continued trying to escape even after the police had him cornered.  There are several holdings worth noting.
The Supreme Court heard two cases last week about whether the warantless search of the digital contents of a cell phone incident to the arrest of its possessor is permissible and, if so, under what circumstances and to what extent.

This is a complicated and important question, and I'm not going to attempt an answer, not least because I don't even carry a cell phone, not wanting to be available to the entire world 24/7.  I have only two impressions about the case. First, the Court should not and isn't going to walk away from the venerable and necessary rule permitting warrantless searches incident to arrest simply because we are in a new, digital world.  Second, the Court, being divided ideologically, although somewhat of a pragmatic turn of mind on police-related questions, and prone to the dreaded balancing test, will come up with a compromise.

Fourth Amendment expert Orin Kerr gives us an education on the question here.

911 and Traffic Stops

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If a motorist calls 911 and reports having been run off the road, is that sufficient cause for police to stop a vehicle fitting the caller's description?  I would think so.  The Supreme Court decided it was this morning, in a surprisingly close 5-4 decision, Navarette v. California.

For those who like to keep track of ideological designations, the split indicates once again that a one-dimensional liberal-conservative model doesn't hack it.  Libertarianism is an different (though not necessarily orthogonal) dimension.  Justice Breyer was in the majority favoring the government; Justice Scalia wrote the dissent.

Good Faith and the Exclusionary Rule

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This morning the United States Supreme Court agreed to review a case in which police officers made a traffic stop for what they believed in good faith was a violation.  The case is Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604.  SCOTUSblog's case page has links to the cert-stage pleadings and the state supreme court opinion.

Can the police stop a car if one of its brake lights is out?  I always thought so.  I would consider it a favor to be told that and let off with a warning, if I were unaware of the failure.  In this case, the officer was suspicious of the vehicle for other reasons and looking for a reason to stop the car and request consent to search.  The Supreme Court held some years back that it will not look beyond the objective legality of the stop to ulterior motives.

Turns out that in North Carolina no published decision had ever held whether a car must have all brake lights working or just one, and the intermediate appellate court held in this case that one will do.  This is a clear case of a police officer obeying the law as he understands it at the time of the search, but the defendant seeks suppression based on a new interpretation of the law ex post facto.

Is this a proper case for application of the drastic remedy of exclusion of valid, probative evidence?  Not in my book.  The question the trial court needed to decide in this case was whether Heien was trafficking cocaine.  The evidence proves he was, beyond a reasonable doubt, and that evidence is not challenged on any ground relating to its reliability.  That should be the end of the criminal case.

The Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule should be abolished altogether.  The Fourth Amendment should be enforced in civil cases where its purported violation is the central issue.  Until that day comes, the exclusionary rule should be limited to bad-faith violations.

The high court also took up Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120, asking whether a prior conviction of possession of a short-barreled shotgun is a "violent felony" for purposes of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

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