United States Supreme Court

On Tuesday October 7th 2008, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases with direct interest for law enforcement – United States v. Herring, and Arizona v. Gant.

United States v. Herring      (Read final Verdict of this case here)
The first case, United States v. Herring involved the arrest of Herring on a mistaken warrant.  An investigator from Coffee County in Alabama had the warrant clerk from his Sheriff’s Office call the warrant clerk at the Dale County Sheriff’s Office to determine if Herring, who had been at the Coffee County Sheriff’s Office dealing with an impounded vehicle, had an active warrant.  The warrant clerk indicated that Herring did in fact have an active warrant in Dale County.  The Coffee County warrant officer asked the clerk from Dale County to pull the warrant due to the fact that the investigator was going to pick up Herring on the warrant.

The information was relayed to the investigator who immediately arrested Herring and searched him incident to arrest.  This search led to the recovery of methamphetamine and a firearm.  Shortly after the search and within 15 minutes of the actual call to Dale County, the Dale County clerk called back to Coffee County and reported that there was a mistake and that there was no longer a warrant for Herring.

The question before the court on October 7th was whether the exclusionary rule applied to the methamphetamine and gun that were seized as the result of a mistaken arrest but where the arresting officer was relying on information from another law enforcement agency.

The Argument
A great deal of the argument focused on the issue of who makes the mistake.  Previous decisions by the United States Supreme Court indicate that if a court employee makes a mistake and law enforcement takes action not realizing a mistake has been made, then the exclusionary rule does not apply and the evidence comes in.  Herring argued that the same rule does not apply when the mistake is made by a law enforcement agency with respect to warrants.  While it seemed to be acknowledged that the officer who made the arrest had done nothing wrong, it was argued that law enforcement’s information and record-keeping with respect to mistakes will only be kept in check if law enforcement is deterred by the exclusionary rule.

On the other side of the argument was the purpose of the exclusionary rule itself, which has always been to deter law enforcement misconduct.  The question was raised, how would the exclusionary rule deter the actions of an officer in making the arrest where the officer had information from another agency indicating the subject was wanted?

Once again, some of the justices raised the use of the exclusionary rule in contemporary cases as to whether it was necessary to deter police conduct.  The Court alluded to the professionalism of current law enforcement and the other remedies available to someone who believed officers had acted inappropriately.

The second case was Arizona v. Gant which also involved a search incident to arrest.   In the case, Gant was stopped and arrested.  The officers on the scene handcuffed Gant and placed him in the locked backseat of a police vehicle.  The officers then searched his car incident to his arrest.  Text Box: [What -- what was the situation when the Fourth Amendment was adopted? Do you know? If you stopped Thomas Jefferson's carriage to arrest Thomas Jefferson and you pulled him off to the side of the road, could you -could you then go and search his carriage?]    [I mean, if the police arrest Mother Teresa, they are still entitled to frisk her, right, even though there's little likelihood that she has a Gatt?]    Justice Scalia:   referring to the Gant Case    In doing so they found a baggie of cocaine and a gun.

At issue before the United States Supreme Court was whether or not law enforcement can search a vehicle incident to arrest after the suspect has been secured in the back seat of a police car with handcuffs.

The argument focused on the purpose behind the search incident arrest doctrine, which is meant to provide for the safety of officers by allowing the officers in all custodial arrests to search the arrestee’s immediate area of control for weapons and second, to allow officers to prevent the destruction of evidence by the arrestee.  The precedent from the Court has always indicated that officers need not articulate the belief that weapons or evidence exist, they merely have to be making a valid custodial arrest and the search must occur contemporaneously with the arrest.

In New York v. Belton, the United States Supreme Court announced a “bright-line” rule for search incident to arrest for vehicles.  The rule held that when a person is arrested in a vehicle, the officers can search the passenger compartment of that vehicle, including containers and there is no need for officers to articulate whether the person could actually reach into the particular area of the passenger compartment.

A great deal of the argument focused on whether the bright-line rule of Belton would be overruled if the Court now held that officers could not search the vehicle once the person was in the police car.  The justices seemed to have difficulty with the argument that this person might slip the handcuffs, get out of the police vehicle and reach for weapons or evidence as a justification for allowing the search.  Justice Kennedy offered several questions which law enforcement attorneys refused to bite on that seemed to offer alternative reasons for allowing the search.  Justice Kennedy asked about whether other persons at the scene may reach into the vehicle thereby posing a threat, or perhaps the items in the vehicle if left unattended may be dangerous.  The argument did seem to favor allowing these searches.

It should be noted that the question was raised as to whether officers may jeopardize themselves by purposely keeping the arrestee near the car until the search incident to arrest was accomplished.  The law enforcement attorneys responded that this would not happen and an amicus brief from law enforcement was also cited.  As a personal note, I’m a bit of a skeptic and believe that officers just might place themselves in jeopardy in the name of police work if we should lose this case.

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