Recent Landmark Decisions

Recent United States Supreme Court decisions have significant bearing on the practical, daily operations of both law enforcement agencies and individual police officers. Such decisions often dictate changes in official policy, general orders and training. These decisions dealt with police roadblocks, the use of canine teams during traffic stops, and the ability of law enforcement officers to seek identification information from individuals stopped for traffic related offenses.

In Illinois v. Lidster

, 74 Cr.L.Rpt. 253 (2004), the Supreme Court again addressed the use of law enforcement established roadblocks and random traffic motor vehicle stops. In Indianapolis v. Edmond

, 531 U.S. 32 (2000), a police roadblock case previously discussed in this periodical, the Supreme Court had held such activity used for general crime control purposes to be unconstitutional due to the lack of specific suspicion directed at a known criminal act.

In this most recent analysis, the U.S. Supreme Court made a distinction between roadblocks designed to detect and deter general criminal activity and those that were established to detect and gain information related to a specific criminal act.

In Illinois v. Lidster

, supra, a police highway roadblock-checkpoint had been established to obtain information regarding a recent fatal hit-and-run accident. The purpose of this law enforcement activity was to identify potential witnesses to the criminal offense. An individual who was stopped was detected to have alcohol on his breath, given and failed field sobriety tests, and eventually convicted of driving while intoxicated. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, using the rationale that this was a police roadblock designed for informational purposes.

The Supreme Court in Illinois v. Caballes

, 76 Cr.L. 319 (2005), determined that where the stop of a motor vehicle for otherwise specific purposes had taken place, it was permissible for a narcotics trained police dog to make a “sniff” of the area around the vehicle. In this case, the individual involved was stopped and detained for speeding and the officer requested a narcotics trained canine team be sent to the scene.

During the course of an exterior sniff of the stopped vehicle, the narcotics trained dog named “Sam” alerted law enforcement officers to the trunk of the stopped vehicle and after searching, the officers found marijuana. The Supreme Court affirmed the conviction indicating that a dog sniff conducted during a lawful traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In Hiibel v. Nevada

, 75 Cr.L. 269 (2004), the U.S. Supreme Court also addressed a routine law enforcement activity when it examined Fifth Amendment issues as to the refusal for a stopped motorist to provide proper identification upon police request. This case involved the refusal of a suspected offender to provide proper identification. The refusal and conviction was held to be constitutional and not a denial of Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Roper v. Simmons

, 76 Cr.L. 424 (2005), declared it was unconstitutional, even if tried as an adult, to impose the death penalty on an individual who had committed the criminal offense and act before the age of 18. The sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court determined that to execute any offenders under the age of 18 for otherwise capital offenses was in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The final two landmark cases by the United States Supreme Court address other issues that have a great bearing on the results of law enforcement criminal prosecutions. The high court determined that federal statute precluding the distribution and use of certain controlled substances superceded any state statutes that made exceptions of medically prescribed use of those same substances.

In Gonzales v. McClary

, 77 Cr.L. 237 (2005), the high court held that state statutes permitting the use and the distribution of controlled substances (marijuana in this case) were in conflict with federal law and thereby were not in conformity with the Constitution. This decision has laid the framework for further issues and challenges on the enforcement of federal law enforcement of federal law related to the medicinal use of controlled substances.

Finally, in a rather technical interpretation of Constitutional Law, the Supreme Court decided in Arthur Anderson v. United States

, 77 Cr.L. 208 (2005), that jury instructions regarding witness tampering and other related matters in related criminal prosecutions must be more specific and detailed in order to meet Constitutional requirements for specificity and to avoid legitimate claims of void for vagueness for failure to explain specific elements related to the criminal offense in chief.

Joseph E. Scuro, Jr., Attorney at Law, has represented law enforcement agencies, police officer associations, and individual law enforcement officers since 1975. He may be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2006

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